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Imaginasia Activities: The Freer Gallery of Art

About Charles Lang Freer & the Freer Gallery of Art

Charles Lang Freer, a self-made millionaire in the railroad-car manufacturing industry, bequeathed his art collections to the nation in 1906 for the formation of the Smithsonian’s first art museum.

Freer began his collecting career with a focus on European prints. By the time of his bequest to the Smithsonian, he had amassed a collection of some nine thousand works in a variety of mediums from different parts of the world. His collection of American works focused on three artists: Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Dwight William Tryon, and Abbott Handerson Thayer, whose works decorated first his home in Detroit and later the walls of his museum.

At the heart of Freer’s collection, however, was American artist James McNeill Whistler. The two first met in 1890, initiating a close, lasting friendship. Freer would proceed to gather the most complete collection of Whistler prints ever assembled, as well as acquire the famous Peacock Room. Whistler, who was influenced by Japanese and Chinese art, spurred Freer to travel to Asia in search of early masterpieces. Freer’s first trip to Asia in 1894 would take him to Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, China, and Japan; later travels would take him to countries all over the world, including Egypt, Indonesia, and Syria. Freer was an adventurous traveler, interested in the natural environment as well as the art and architecture of the places he visited. He invested time into developing a connoisseurship of non-Western art. He saw connections, whether in color, surface texture, or treatment of perspective, between American and Asian works: between Whistler’s Peacock Room and the Asian pottery he installed within it, and between a seascape by Tryon and a Chinese ink painting.

Freer chose to donate his collections so that others could study and compare seemingly disparate objects and find connections among them. Freer especially wanted to use his museum as a vehicle to promote Whistler as a great artist whose work incorporated aesthetic qualities from other cultures.

Freer stipulated that his collections would remain in his possession during his lifetime so that he could continue to refine them. He conceived of his collection as a coherent whole composed of harmonious works and free of discordant elements. He therefore stipulated that no future acquisitions were to be added to his American holdings. Two months before his death, however, he was persuaded to add a codicil to his will that allowed for the occasional addition of Asian works of art.

The Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in May 1923.


The Adventures of Freer Guide

cover of Adventures of Freer guide-title and two photos of Freer

Learn more about Freer and explore artwork in this special guide to the Freer Gallery!

Adventures of Freer (pdf, 4.5 MB)

Make your own miniature Gallery

detail from Mini Gallery instructions  - diagram to assemble mini gallery

Make a mini-gallery in a shoebox and curate your very own exhibition with these easy instructions!

Mini Gallery Activity (pdf, 3.6 MB)

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