Charles Lang Freer


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Collector and museum founder. Also a railroad-car magnate. A pioneer in connoisseurship of Asian and Near Eastern art, he collected also the work of American contemporaries but limited his purchases almost exclusively to the work of four tonalists he knew personally: Thomas Dewing, Abbott Thayer, Dwight Tryon, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Possessed of a faith in the universality of beauty, Freer valued aesthetic refinement above all, but in his non-Western acquisitions demanded also historical significance within a major tradition and a superior condition of preservation. At fourteen Freer left school in his native Kingston, New York. There, he worked in a cement factory before entering the railroad business as a clerk. After four years in Logansport, Indiana, in 1880 he moved to Detroit where he made a fortune in the manufacture of rolling stock. Soon he began collecting European prints, followed by Whistler etchings in 1887 and then paintings by Dewing, Tryon, and Thayer. After establishing a friendship with Whistler in 1890, Freer eventually amassed more than nine hundred Whistler prints, along with another three hundred paintings and pastels, as well as Whistler's celebrated Peacock Room. While assembling the foremost representation of Whistler's work, Freer concurrently absorbed the artist's interest in Eastern art. With time, this became a near obsession, especially during the collector's last two decades, following retirement from business. He first traveled to Asia in 1894, but his most significant acquisitions from the region postdated his acquaintance in 1901 with Ernest Fenollosa, whose scholarly knowledge guided Freer's development as an internationally respected connoisseur of non-Western art. Formally accepted in 1906 as the Smithsonian Institution's first art collection, Freer's gift to the nation, including large holdings in Japanese and Chinese art, as well as Korean, South Asian, and Near Eastern work, comprised the most comprehensive and finest collection of Asian art then in private American hands. Freer also financed construction of the museum building on Washington's Mall. Involved in every detail of its design, from 1912 he worked with architect Charles Adams Platt on plans for the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened to the public in 1923. Until his death in New York, where he had moved in 1916, Freer retained control of the collection, which he continued to augment and refine. His will stipulates that objects in the collection cannot be de-accessioned or loaned, but he provided for future Asian acquisitions. Today the museum inventory numbers more than three times the approximately nine thousand objects Freer donated. Additions have maintained his preference for exceptional specimens, without regard for encyclopedic completeness. The American collection remains as he shaped it. In 1987 the museum was linked underground to the Smithsonian's new Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian art, providing an extended context for the Freer holdings and creating a comprehensive center for the study of Asian art.

Subjects: Art.

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