Early Life, The Collector, and the Later Years
In 1880 he moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he eventually made his fortune in manufacturing railroad cars. Freer took an active part in the expanding cultural life of Detroit and began to collect art. Two of his early purchases in 1887—a set of etchings of Venice, Italy, by the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler and a painted Japanese fan—established Freer's enduring interest in cross-cultural aesthetic comparisons.
After orchestrating a major corporate merger of the railroad car business in 1899, Freer retired and devoted his remaining years to what he called "active idleness": traveling the world, adding to his growing art collection, and planning for the ultimate display of his works of art in a public museum. Freer offered his sizable collection of Asian and American art to the Smithsonian Institution in 1904. His gift encompassed a comprehensive array of paintings, prints, drawings, and watercolors by Whistler (including the Peacock Room) and large numbers of paintings by American artists Thomas Dewing, Dwight Tryon, and Abbott Handerson Thayer. Freer had also begun to build an important collection of Asian art that included significant examples of paintings, sculpture, and ceramics from China and Japan. Later, he added ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art as well. For Freer, these diverse works embodied a common narrative of aesthetic harmony that extended across time and space and thus belonged "to the ages".
After nearly two years of negotiations, culminating in the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt on his behalf, the Regents of the Smithsonian accepted Freer's collection in 1906. Freer retained ownership of the art until his death in 1919. In the intervening years, his initial gift to the nation grew from approximately 2,500 objects to nearly 10,000 works. The terms of Freer's bequest, outlined in his will, prohibited future additions to his American holdings, which he regarded as perfectly complete. The Asian collections, meanwhile, have continued to grow through gifts and purchases, and today they are regarded as among the finest examples of Asian art anywhere in the world.
Five years later, in 1873, Freer is appointed paymaster and accountant by Colonel Frank Hecker (1846-1927) of the Kingston and Syracuse Railroad. Freer and Hecker then move to Indiana in 1876 to work for the Detroit, Eel River, and Illinois Railroad. They then move again in 1880 to Detroit, Michigan, where they organize the Peninsular Car Works.
Four years later, they construct an early assembly line factory on Ferry Avenue. During that time, in 1882, the Aesthetic Movement comes to Detroit when British author and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) lectures on "The House Beautiful" and Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910), an English surgeon and amateur etcher, lectures on the "etching revival". The next year, Freer begins collecting fine art prints by old master and contemporary European artists.
Over the next two years (1894-1895), at Whistler’s urging, Freer makes his first tour of Asia. He sails through the Suez Canal to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), visits India, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and arrives in Japan in time for the cherry blossoms. Then, in 1896, Freer meets Japanese art dealer Matsuki Bunkyo (1867-1940) in Boston and begins to collect Japanese paintings.
Over the years of 1897 to 1898, Freer’s collection grows significantly through the purchase of many Chinese, Korean, and Japanese ceramics, Japanese paintings, and more than 300 works by Whistler. In 1899, Freer orchestrates the consolidation of the regional railroad car manufacturing industry. Soon after, he then retires from business to pursue collecting full-time.
The following year, 1900, Freer buys a villa in Capri, Italy with attorney Thomas Jerome (1864-1914), a friend from Detroit. In 1901 he meets scholar-collector Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), who advises Freer in his quest to become a connoisseur of Japanese and Chinese art.
- In 1901 Freer acquired this Thayer landscape of Capri, sight unseen.
In 1902, Freer goes to London, and visits the Peacock Room, decorated earlier by Whistler. Freer reports the Room’s current owner, Mr. Blanche Watney, is using its gilded shelves for the “storage of bric-a-brac, dime novels, etc.” In that same year, Freer acquires his first Near Eastern pottery, chiefly Raqqa wares, from Paris-based art dealer Dikran Kelekian (1868-1951).
In 1903, Freer travels to Europe and is with Whistler in London during the artist’s final illness. He purchases from the Glasgow collector William Burrell La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, one of more than 130 works by Whistler to enter Freer’s collection that year. Freer also acquires 57 East Asian, Near Eastern, and Islamic ceramics.
Two years after seeing it, Freer buys the Peacock Room in 1904, and has it taken apart and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, and reassembled in a special wing of his Detroit home. Then, in 1905, Freer offers to donate his collections and the funds to build an art museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC. In 1906, at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), the Smithsonian Institution accepts Freer’s offer. In appreciation, Freer commissions artist Gari Melchers (1860-1932) to paint Roosevelt’s portrait. In the same year, Freer travels to the “Holy Land” and acquires ancient biblical manuscripts in Egypt.
- The New York Herald's title page when Freer purchased the Peacock Room. New York Herald, July 17, 1904
In 1910, Freer took his final trip to Asia, where he visits the Longmen Buddhist caves in China. Freer’s collection of Chinese art includes masterpieces of Song and Yuan paintings as well as major holdings of ancient Chinese jades and bronzes. Three years later, in 1913, Freer commissions architect Charles A. Platt (1861-1933) to design a museum building in the nation’s capitol. In 1916, the Smithsonian Institution approves plans for the Freer Gallery of Art. Ground is broken on the National Mall. Before his death on September 25, 1919 in New York City, Freer appends a codicil to his will, allowing Asian, Egyptian, and Near Eastern art to be added to his collection in the future.
In 1913 Freer hired architect Charles Adams Platt, White’s associate who also had studied painting and landscape design. Freer had relied on Platt’s 1894 publication Italian Gardens in planning his first trip to Italy, where he saw many Renaissance villas with open-air courtyards. Platt and Freer later agreed on a similar design for the Freer Gallery of Art.
Freer, whose health was seriously failing by that time, nevertheless worked closely with Platt on every aspect of the museum: its exterior design and interior plan, the decoration of the galleries, and the arrangement of the art. Freer even helped select display cases and furnishings to ensure perfect aesthetic harmony throughout the building.
For the American galleries, Freer envisioned ornamental cornices with gilding that would complement the splendid gilt picture frames designed by Whistler, White, and others. The Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923. It was the first art museum of the Smithsonian Institution. According to the original installation plan, American art occupied more than half of the gallery space. That is no longer true today. In keeping with Charles Lang Freer’s wishes, the American collection has remained unchanged since his death in 1919, while the Asian collections have grown tremendously through acquisitions and purchases.
Intern - Freer|Sackler