CHANCE ENCOUNTER LED TO WORLD–RENOWNED COLLECTION AND FOUNDING OF SMITHSONIAN’S FIRST ART MUSEUM
October 13, 2014
In 1887, businessman Charles Lang Freer acquired his first works by American artist James McNeill Whistler, a set of delicately rendered etchings known as the Second Venice Set. The result of a chance encounter, this single act led to Freer amassing one of the world’s finest collections of Asian and American art and later founding the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. Opening Oct. 18, the exhibition “Fine Impressions: Whistler, Freer, and Venice” tells the story for the first time of how Freer’s precipitous purchase catalyzed a shift in taste and came to define his subsequent career as a connoisseur and collector.
The Second Venice Set is well known among Whistler’s oeuvre, highlighting changes in Whistler’s style and underscoring the popularity of Venice as a late 19th-century tourist destination and artistic subject. On view through late 2015, the 26 etchings will be accompanied by Freer’s earliest purchases of Japanese painting and ceramics, acquired because of what he identified as their “Whistlerian” qualities.
Whistler’s first and only visit to Venice commenced in the fall of 1879, when his fortunes were at low ebb. Hoping to recover from financial troubles—the result of a falling-out with his patron Frederick Leyland over the Peacock Room and a disastrous lawsuit against the art critic John Ruskin—Whistler accepted a commission from a London art gallery to produce 12 etchings of Venetian scenes over the course of three months. Captivated by the city’s loveliness and obsessed with the technical details of his craft, Whistler remained in Venice for more than a year, returning to London with a hundred pastels and a handful of oil paintings.
Freer acquired the prints after his business associate, New York attorney Howard Mansfield, invited him to inspect some especially “fine impressions” of etchings by the artist. Up to that point, Freer had been uninterested in works by the expatriate American. “Why anyone in the world should make any fuss over Whistler as an artist” was, he said, beyond him. But when Mansfield brought one portfolio after another, Freer changed his mind, overcome by Whistler’s mastery of the medium and the sheer beauty of the works. As he later remarked to Mansfield, “My purchasing, I recall, began the day thereafter, and has continued ever since whenever opportunity has offered.”
Freer’s precipitous purchase marked the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership with the artist. It was Whistler who first prompted Freer’s passion for Asian art and later encouraged his patron to leave his collections as a gift to the nation. The resulting Freer Gallery of Art, the first Smithsonian art museum, is the largest and finest repository of works by Whistler in the world.
The 50 etchings he produced, Whistler claimed, “are far more beautiful in subject and more important in interest than any” he had yet created. He exhibited these works over the course of the next few years, and he published the Second Venice Set as a group in 1886. When Freer purchased these 26 prints the following year, they were among the most up-to-date examples of Whistler’s work on the market.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day (closed Dec. 25), and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other public events, visit asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000.