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Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan

Idyllic landscapes held special significance for Freer, whether they were located in New Hampshire or at Ama-no Hashidate in northern Kyoto prefecture. (It is considered to be one of the three most beautiful sites in Japan.) Although Freer made his fortune behind the closed doors of corporate boardrooms, he nurtured his aesthetic sensibilities and sometimes fragile health in the open air. Travel was one way Freer liberated himself—if only temporarily—from “the harness of business.” He sought out experiences that would transport him far from the clamor and ugliness of modern urban life and into a realm of pastoral beauty.

Before his first of five trips to Asia, Freer visited Thomas Dewing at his summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire, which had been developed as an artists’ colony in the 1880s and became the setting for Dewing’s distinctive paintings of dreamlike landscapes with figures. It was also the setting for pageants and tableaux vivants put on for the amusement of residents and their guests. In honor of Freer’s visit, Dewing and his wife, Maria Oakey, produced a so-called Javanese masque, in which performers wore costumes from Java and Japan and danced to the music of Antonin Dvořák.

The memory of the New Hampshire landscape—that “poetic and imaginative world . . . where a few choice spirits live,” as Dewing described it—stayed with Freer and influenced his understanding of more distant locations. In Japan, where the Meiji government was focused on rapid industrialization and modernization, Freer spent as little time as possible in the large cities. Instead, he sought out “splendid groves of pine,” “quaint and picturesque” mountain villages draped in wisteria, and “remote hamlets and forests” that, as he explained in letters written in the form of a Japanese handscroll, “drive dull care away.” Freer took the memory of that idyllic experience home with him to Detroit. The paintings, prints, and ceramic pieces, such as tea utensils and a vase decorated with a kingfisher, that he purchased over the next few years include a large number derived from nature, often combined with female figures and poetic inscriptions. Explore the Sylvan Sounds Gallery and discover more about Freer’s interest in beauty, nature, and aesthetic connections across cultures.

detail from F1897.27

Detail, Landscape: Three Young Women at the Matsuchiyama. Attributed to Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815). Japan, Edo period, early 19th century. Hanging scroll; color and gold on silk. Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1898.13