Asian art and antiques collector Charles Lang Freer and colleagues, Yokohama villa of Hara Tomitaro, c. 1910. Charles Lang Freer Papers. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C

Asian Antiques Blog -Profiles of Collectors of Asian Art in America Series


Born in 1854, Charles Lang Freer was a famous industrialist, art collector and philanthropist active in the late 19th-early 20th century. Freer was undisputedly a highly discerning connoisseur of fine Asian art, and yet it widely recognized that much of his acquisitions was in part guided by the famous curator Ernest Fenollosa who once poetically conjured a vision the magnate's collection:

"A mural painting by Kano Eitoku, a tea bowl by Kenzan, and an oil seascape by Whistler achieve similar delicate tonal effects."

Freer's friendship and support of American artists such as Dwight W. Tryon and James McNeill Whistler  is significant not only because the industrialist acquired the greatest collection of Whistler's artwork but also because the very intentional combination of contemporary art with historic art from the east demonstrates Freer's singular sense of aesthetics and taste, and an interest in visual culture in all its forms.

Between 1895-1911, Freer took a total of four trips to east Asia and acquired over 8,000 works including Chinese ceramics, Japanese prints and paintings, sketches by Katsushika Hokusai and Kamakura-period paintings. 

Image courtesy of Neal Greentree, Photographer, Smithsonian.

In 1904, Freer arranged with the American president Theodore Roosevelt to donate his collections to the American public and this became the foundation of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Smithsonian Institution. Pictured here is the famous showcasing James McNeill Whistler's decorative murals, 1877.

Image in the public domain.

In 1909, Freer traveled to China and began building his Chinese art collection including painting, with an emphasis on the Tang, Song, and  early Yuan dynasties Lin Tinggui Luohan Laundering,1178, 1178 ink and color on silk, hanging scroll on panel, 44-3/16 x 21-1/16 inches, The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian.          

James McNeill Whistler, The Princess of Porcelain, The Peacock Room, The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution.           
Detail of the Peacock Room, The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC. James McNeill Whistler decorative murals, 1877. Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood. Image courtesy of Neal Greentree, Photographer, Smithsonian.

Opened in 1923, the elegant Italianate Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution Washington Dc, is a not to be missed gem in the heart of the nation's capital. The museum has many beautiful exhibitions and features including a wide range of exhibitions, events and artwork such as the famously gorgeous Peacock room and Whistler's superb painting Harmony in Blue and Gold and diverse gorgeous work from China, Egypt, India, the Himalayas, Japan, Korea and the Islamic regions.

The gallery is currently closed for renovations and will reopen in October 2017. More can be learned about Charles Lang Freer on the Smithsonian website as well as at Smith College, another important repository of Freer's fine Asian art collection.

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