Charles Lang Freer and the Birth of a Museum

Early Life, The Collector, and the Later Years

By Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Freer|Sackler - The Smithsonian's Museums of Asian Art

Portrait of Charles Lang Freer (1902-1903) by Artist: James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art


As a young man growing up in Kingston, New York, museum founder Charles Lang Freer surely never anticipated his future life as a renowned connoisseur, world traveler, cosmopolitan businessman, and public benefactor. Born in 1854 to a family of modest means, he went to work at age fourteen, first in a cement factory and then as a clerk for the local railroad.

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.

Charles Lang Freer at the Villa Castello in Capri, ca. 1901Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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".

Drawing of "Freer Museum" dated December 15, 1913 (15-Dec-13) by Artist: Charles Adams PlattSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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.

Freer Timeline - 1854 Kingston NYSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Early Life

On February 25, 1854, Charles Lang Freer was born in Kingston, New York. Freer's mother then dies in 1868 when Freer was 14.

New York Cement Company at Le Fever Falls (1868)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Following his mother's death, Freer leaves school and begins to work at a local cement factory.

Freer Timeline - 1873 Freer in the Catskills, 1889 (1889) by Frederick Stuart ChurchSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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.

Peninsular Car Works (1884) by Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public LibrarySmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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.

A crane (19th century) by Artist: Style of Ogata KorinSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

In 1887, Freer purchases his first example of Japanese art: a fan decorated with a crane design.

Nocturne: Furnace (1879-1880) by Artist: James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

He also meets New York collector Howard Mansfield (1849-1938) and "discovers" prints by expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Freer then purchases the Second Venice Set—26 recent etchings by Whistler—from the gallery of M. Knoedler and Company.

Freer House, East Ferry Avenue (now Ferry Street), Detroit, ca. 1906Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

In 1890, Freer hires Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre (1858-1944) to design his house on Ferry Avenue in Detroit. During that same year, Freer meets with Whistler in London and writes an account of his visit for the Detroit Free Press.

After Sunset (1892) by Artist: Thomas Wilmer DewingSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Freer moves into his house in 1892, and he commissions tonalist painters Dwight Tryon (1849-1925) and Thomas Dewing (1851-1938),

to decorate the entry hall and parlor of Freer's house.

Variations in Flesh Colour and Green - The Balcony (1864-1870; additions 1870-1879) by James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

In that same year he acquires Variations in Flesh and Colour and Green: The Balcony,

Freer's first oil painting by Whistler.

Bottle, Satsuma ware (18th century) by Artist: Decoration attributed to Kano TangenSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Freer also makes his first purchase of Japanese ceramics.

A Virgin (1892-1893) by Artist: Abbott Handerson ThayerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

The Collector

During the economic “Panic of 1893”, Freer helps organize the creation of the Michigan-Peninsular Car Company. He then purchases A Virgin by Abbot Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) to hang in the stairwell of his new home.

Freer with rickshaw men, Kyoto (1895)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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.

Yugao vines and a poem (18th-19th century)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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.

Capri (1901) by Artist: Abbott Handerson ThayerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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.

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine) (1863-1865) by James McNeill WhistlerSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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.

“Whistler’s Peacock Room,” New York Herald, July 17, 1904Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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

Alvin Langdon Coburn Portrait of Charles Lang Freer (1909) by Alvin LangdonSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Later Years

Beginning in 1907, Freer embarks on his second tour of Asia. He makes significant purchases in China and Japan, where he is treated as an internationally renowned collector. In the same year, Freer acquires the Horace Allen collection of 87 Korean and Chinese ceramics. He displays many of them in the Peacock Room the following year. In 1908, Freer installs more than 250 ceramics from his own collection in the Peacock Room. On his third overseas trip, he travels to West Asia to study Raqqa ware. Freer embarks on his fourth trip to Asia in 1909, traveling through Japan and China, where he meets the collector Duanfang (1861-1911) in Tianjin. Freer makes a 600-mile steamer voyage from Hubei Province down the Yangzi River to Shanghai. In that same year, Freer commissions Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) to photograph his collection.

Longmen, 1910, from Charles Lang Freer’s photographs of ChinaSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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.

Katharine Rhoades, 1916. Photograph by Alfred StieglitzSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

From 1920 to 1922, artist Katharine Rhoades (1885-1965) oversees the transfer of Freer’s collection from Detroit to Washington DC. John Ellerton Lodge (1876-1942) of Boston is appointed the first director of the Freer Gallery of Art. In 1923, the Freer Gallery of Art opens to the public.

Drawing of "Freer Museum" dated December 15, 1913 (15-Dec-13) by Artist: Charles Adams PlattSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Freer Gallery of Art

Charles Lang Freer believed a suitable setting contributed to the proper enjoyment of art. His gift to the nation, therefore, included one million dollars to construct and maintain a small but elegant building on the National Mall that would be, as he said, “a very great

ornament to Washington.” He had hoped the building would be designed by his friend, the celebrated architect Stanford White (1853–1906), but White’s murder in New York City’s Madison Square Garden forced a change of plans. 

Freer Gallery Ground-breaking (1916-09-23)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

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.

Construction of the Freer Gallery of Art - Steam Shovel (1916)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

The cornerstone of the building was laid in 1916, but construction was temporarily halted during World War I.

Freer Gallery of Art Construction - Pouring Cement (1917)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian 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.

The eighteen exhibition galleries and the Peacock Room are organized around an arcaded courtyard that is visible from the corridors running along the north and south sides.

A view of the garden, Freer maintained, would visually refresh visitors as they moved from one gallery to the next.

The rooms dedicated to Chinese and Japanese art were planned as long, rectangular spaces with little architectural adornment.

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.

The opening of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 1987, which shares a single staff and a common mission with the Freer Gallery, has further enlarged the holdings and exhibition of Asian art.

Freer Gallery of Art Panoramic 360° (2015-10-25) by Marc BretzfelderSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

For nearly a century, the Freer Gallery has continued to function as its founder intended: it remains a monument to the linked ideals of beauty, study, and cross-cultural aesthetic harmony.

Credits: Story

Text by
Andres Garcia
Intern - Freer|Sackler

Layout by
Marc Bretzfelder
Smithsonian Institution

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