The Freer Gallery of Art is named for its founder, the Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919). Many visitors to the Freer are surprised to discover that although the gallery is primarily dedicated to Asian art, it also has major holdings of American paintings and prints from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Freer himself did not see anything odd in the double focus of his collecting interests. Like many people interested in art at the end of the nineteenth century, he believed that all true art expresses universal harmonies, and that the history of both European-American and Asian art expresses an erratic progress toward the clearer evocation of those harmonies. As Freer explained in a 1904 letter to the head of the Smithsonian Institution, “My great desire has been to unite modern work with masterpieces of certain periods of high civilization harmonious in spiritual and physical suggestion, having the power to broaden aesthetic culture and the grace to elevate the human mind.” Believing that both parts of his collection formed a single aesthetic whole, Freer originally insisted that the collection be limited to works he donated. With a few exceptions, no objects were to be added after his death. Freer later changed his mind, allowing the gallery to continue collecting older Asian art. But he retained the prohibition against acquiring additional American works, so the American collection remains unchanged from the day Freer donated it. The gallery’s collection of American art is important for the beauty of the works it contains and as an historical artifact: it evidences both Freer’s personal taste and a now distant moment in the development of American art and culture.
Freer began his American collection at a crucial moment in the history of American art. From the colonial period until after the Civil War, American artists were primarily concerned with the accurate representation of things, places, people, and actions. They sought to capture in pencil or pigment what they believed to be objective truths about their world. In the 1870s, urban growth, the rapid expansion of industrial production, and the extension of railroads to the Pacific Ocean transformed the nation, creating new opportunities for a younger generation of more cosmopolitan artists. Unlike earlier American artists, many of these artists assumed that since all perception is grounded in the individual self, objective or “unmediated” knowledge is unobtainable; artists do not represent reality, but only their experience of it. As one leading American critic commented in 1880, “Whereas it used to be the main effort of American painters to imitate nature, it is the main effort of the new men to express feeling.”
For some late-nineteenth-century artists, the repudiation of objectivity led to the embrace of the ideal of “Art for Art’s Sake.” These artists conceived of the art object as an autonomous creation to be valued for the success with which it organized color and line into a formally complete and therefore beautiful whole. The most influential American advocate of this position was the expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). According to Whistler, a work of art “should appear as the flower to the painter—perfect in its bud as in its bloom—with no reason to explain its presence—no mission to fulfill—a joy to the artist—a delusion to the philanthropist—a puzzle to the botanist—an accident of sentiment and alliteration to the literary man.” A botanist may appreciate a flower because she recognizes it as a rare orchid and a sentimentalist may value it as a symbol for the evanescence of life. But Whistler and his fellow “aesthetes” rejected the idea that the success of a work of art should be measured by its accuracy as a representation or the effectiveness with which it tells a story or suggests a moral. For these artistic radicals, the goal of art was—solely—the creation of beauty. They believed that a beautiful art object, like a flower, is beautiful not because it reveals something new or important about the world, but simply because it organizes color and line into a visually satisfying whole.
Charles Lang Freer was a self-made millionaire and a self-taught aesthete. After amassing his initial fortune in the manufacture of railroad cars, Freer began to acquire art in the mid-1880s. Like other novice collectors of the day, he started by purchasing moderately priced engravings by living artists, quickly focusing on works by Whistler. Freer made his first trip outside the United States in 1890, traveling to London where he introduced himself to Whistler. This meeting changed Freer’s life. Twenty years older than Freer, Whistler had been one of the first westerners to collect Japanese woodblock prints and Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. By the early 1860s, he had begun to incorporate Asian motifs and designs into his work. In later years, Freer recalled that it was Whistler who first “called his attention” to the arts of Asia, and encouraged him to collect masterpieces of earlier Japanese and Chinese art not yet being exported to Europe or the United States. From 1890 until his death, Freer actively collected both contemporary American and older Asian art. Indeed, Freer soon came to believe that Whistler’s work marked the point where the two previously separate traditions merged. For Freer, Whistler stood at the vanguard of the history of art, uniting “the art of the Occident with that of the Orient.”
The Freer collection includes major works by many of the most important turn-of-the-century American artists, including Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Childe Hassam, and John Twachtman. But Freer never attempted to put together a comprehensive survey of fin-de-siècle American art. Rather, almost all the American art at the gallery is either by Whistler or expresses a Whistlerian approach to art. The Whistler collection is especially rich, consisting of almost thirteen hundred paintings, drawings, or engravings. Highlights include early works such as Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony (1864–70), numerous portraits, including the large painting of his model Maud Franklin titled Arrangement in White and Black (about 1876), several of the most powerful of the night scenes Whistler called “nocturnes,” and a virtually complete collection of his engravings. The single best-known object in the entire Freer collection is Whistler’s spectacular creation Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876–1877). Originally built as the dining room of an opulent London mansion, The Peacock Room is permanently installed in the southeast corner of the gallery.
In addition to works by Whistler, the gallery also has comprehensive collections of paintings and drawings by three younger American artists with whom Freer maintained long-lasting friendships—Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Dwight William Tryon, and Abbott Handerson Thayer. Inspired by Whistler’s nocturnes, Dewing and Tryon both painted shimmering canvases in which subtly varied colors express the artist’s experience of the beauties informing the everyday world. Thayer’s work is less indebted to Whistler’s stylistic innovations, but his thickly painted portraits of angelic New England women also suggest a painterly faith that beauty exists everywhere in the world if only we can train ourselves to recognize it. No other public or private collection in the world can rival the strength of the Freer’s holdings of work by Whistler, Dewing, Tryon, or Thayer.