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Happy Birthday, Charles Lang Freer!

Portrait of Charles Lang Freer by Edward Steichen, 1916, F|S Archives, A1993.05

Portrait of Charles Lang Freer by Edward Steichen, 1916, F|S Archives, A1993.05

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer was born on February 25, 1854, in Kingston, New York. Freer made his fortune in the railroad car manufacturing industry in the mid- to late nineteenth century. His interest in the Aesthetic Movement helped shape his tastes in art, and in the late 1880s Freer began to actively collect paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler. Freer would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, who, through his own interest in the arts and cultures of Asia, turned Freer’s attention East. Whistler introduced Freer to the arts of Asia, and by 1906, Freer had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China, as well as artifacts from the ancient Near East.

Charles Lang Freer knew exactly what the art gallery that would someday hold his collections should look like. In a meeting with architect Charles Platt at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, Freer jotted down his ideas for a classical, well-proportioned building on a napkin. An Italianate structure with a porticoed courtyard would reflect his ideas about art and aesthetics, including scale, proportion, harmony, and repose. From the day that the Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923 until the 1970s, live peacocks roamed the courtyard, creating, in effect, a living peacock room to rival the painted masterpiece by James McNeill Whistler.

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Valentine’s Day: Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf

Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf by Tang Yin; 16th century; Ink and color on silk, F1917.335; gift of Charles Lang Freer

Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf,” Tang Yin; China, Ming dynasty, 16th century; ink and color on silk; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.335

In order to ensure an excellent Valentine’s Day, you’ll need a few supplies: a red (crimson) leaf, a pen, and preferably, a palace with its own stream. Compose a love poem on the leaf and let the world know your feelings. Place the leaf in the stream and watch as it flows out of sight. It will be picked up by somebody who will write a similar poem of longing next to yours and place the leaf back in the water (pay no attention to the whole upstream/downstream thing; in this scenario, water flows to the lover), on which it will return to you. Neither of you will know who wrote the other poem—but in time, the two of you will meet, fall in love, and find out, on your wedding night, that you two penned those love poems on the same crimson leaf. Bliss is guaranteed.

Though this story originated during the Tang dynasty (618–907), “writing a poem on a crimson leaf” became a metaphor in Chinese literature to describe a happy marriage destined by fate.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Learn more about Chinese art in our collections.

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Whistler Gone Wilde

James McNeill Whistler, 1885, Photogravure attributed to Mortimer Menpes (1859-1938). Signed with the butterfly and inscribed by Whistler, probably in 1899, "To Charles L. Freer—à un de ces jours!" Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer|Sackler Archives

James McNeill Whistler, 1885, Photogravure attributed to Mortimer Menpes (1859-1938). Signed with the butterfly and inscribed by Whistler, probably in 1899, “To Charles L. Freer—à un de ces jours!” Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer|Sackler Archives

I can only imagine the sparks that flew when artist James McNeill Whistler met writer Oscar Wilde, a meeting of great minds and superb wits. Both were associated with the Aesthetic movement that blossomed in England in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Wilde, who was twenty years younger than Whistler, fashioned himself as the artist’s disciple. They traveled in the same artistic circles in London, and both had a way with words. In fact, when Whistler delivered a particularly delicious bon mot, Wilde remarked, “I wish I had said that.” “You will, Oscar; you will,” was Whistler’s enviable reply.

Oscar Wilde, 1882, Sarony, (from John Cooper's Oscar Wilde in America)

Oscar Wilde, 1882, Sarony (from John Cooper’s “Oscar Wilde in America”)

Renowned for his works of art, whose decorative, nearly abstract qualities puzzled Victorian viewers accustomed to moralizing narrative, Whistler was a self-proclaimed elitist in spite of his penchant for self-promotion. Wilde, on the other hand, was a popularizer, happily lecturing audiences from London to San Francisco on the quintessentially Aesthetic topic “the House Beautiful.” Whistler ultimately tired of Wilde, who he felt was encroaching on his turf. He publicly detached himself from the writer on the evening of February 20, 1885, at Prince’s Hall, London, when Whistler delivered his Ten O’Clock Lecture. Appearing in full evening dress, Whistler intended the event as a public manifesto, in which he challenged the conventional aesthetics of the day. Breaking with the long tradition of artists creating realist works that imitated nature, Whistler argued that nature could use a little help from the artist:

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful as the musician gathers his notes. And forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.”

While presenting himself as a rare genius, Whistler cast Wilde as an “amateur” and a stalking “Dilettante.” Though Whistler did not use Wilde’s name in his speech, his description of the author was clearly recognizable to the audience.

In his review of the event, Wilde responded with this playful praise for the Ten O’Clock:

“Not merely for its clever nature and amusing jests … but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages … for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler entirely concurs.”

More verbal sparring ensued (a kind of war between the aesthetes), and the Whistler-Wilde friendship dissolved entirely. Always one to get the last word, Wilde would later base the murdered artist in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray after Whistler.

***

With Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest on stage at the nearby Shakespeare Theatre, Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, will speak about the complicated relationship between Whistler and Wilde at Harman Hall on Saturday, March 1, at 5:30 pm (rescheduled due to weather). Tickets are free, but reservations are required. More information is available at shakespearetheatre.org.

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Super Bowl Sunday

Bowl, possibly Han dynasty, bronze, F1946.18a-b

Bowl, possibly Han dynasty, bronze, F1946.18a-b

We’ve already picked a winner for Super Bowl Sunday. This wonderful bronze bowl from Inner Mongolia was created between 206 BCE and 220 CE. It is approximately seven inches in height and features a Mongolian horse lowering its head to drink from the bowl. Amazing and cute at the same time. Take that Puppy Bowl!

With thousands of bowls and other vessels to choose from in the Freer|Sackler collections, picking a favorite is never easy. To learn more about our collections, begin here.

#superbowlsunday

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