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You Ask, We Answer: Why is American art in the Freer|Sackler?

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, James McNeill Whistler, F1904.75a

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; F1904.75a

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

This is a question we are often asked, and it makes perfect sense. We’re the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art—yet we have important holdings of American art from the late 19th century, including the world’s greatest collection of works by James McNeill Whistler, along with works by his compatriots Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and Dwight William Tryon. In the Freer, you can move from a gallery that features Japanese screens and enter a room that displays Whistler’s poetic Nocturnes, while the Sackler currently features a landmark exhibition of Whistler’s works alongside its many galleries of Asian art. How can that be?

For the answer, I have to take you back to 1890, when Detroit businessman Charles Lang Freer paid an unannounced call to Whistler’s London studio. The two men became friends and over the next thirteen years, Whistler helped Freer amass what the artist called “a fine collection of Whistlers!!—perhaps The collection.” When Freer observed similarities between Whistler’s art and Japanese prints, the artist encouraged him to visit Asia, where, he explained, Freer would find artistic treasures—early chapters in what Whistler called “the story of the beautiful“—from which his own work was descended. Freer thus conceived of his museum in large part as a monument to Whistler and the “points of contact” between East and West and ancient and modern that he believed the artist’s work embodied.

Freer ultimately would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, including Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, an opulent dining room painted by Whistler in 1876–77, and others displayed in the Sackler exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. By 1906, Freer also had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China and artifacts from the ancient Near East, selections of which can now be viewed near the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art.

Learn more about American art in our collections and An American in London, on view through August 17. You can also explore the Peacock Room in our free iPad and iPhone app. On Thursday, July 17, the Peacock Room shutters will be open from 12–5:30 pm. Come experience this extraordinary room in a new light!

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Mother Knows Best

Photomechanical reproduction in halftone, after Whistler's portrait of his mother, "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. I"

Photomechanical reproduction in halftone after Whistler’s portrait of his mother, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. I”

Whistler’s famous depiction of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, is one of the art world’s most iconic images. The painting is in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, but we have a lovely photomechanical reproduction at Freer|Sackler.

Whistler was close to his mother, Anna, who came to live with him in London, where he painted her portrait in 1871. But what interests me now is not Whistler’s depiction of maternal serenity (severity?) but the image he painted on the wall behind his mother: a kind of painting within a painting. This etching, Black Lion Wharf, is currently on view in the exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, open in the Sackler through August 17.

Black Lion Wharf, 1859, Etching and drypoint; Bequest of Mr. Samuel E. Stokes, Jr.; FSC-GR-619

Black Lion Wharf, James McNeill Whistler; 1859; etching and drypoint; Bequest of Mr. Samuel E. Stokes, Jr.; FSC-GR-619

And it’s a beauty. Black Lion Wharf is the only example among the famous Thames Set in which Whistler reversed the image on the etching plate to ensure the final print read as a true depiction of the view. The real-life Black Lion Wharf was located between Downes and Carron Wharves, east of Saint Katharine’s Dock. Whistler included signboards for several wharves in the area, thus enhancing the topographically specific quality of the scene.

In honor of Mother’s Day, we’re throwing in a bonus recipe from Whistler’s Mother’s Cookbook, edited by Margaret MacDonald, who is the guest curator of An American in London along with Patricia de Montfort.

Lemon Pudding

Take the juice of three lemons and the peel of two, half a pound of sugar, one-quarter of butter, fifteen eggs (leave out eleven whites). Mix it and put it over a slow fire—

4 eggs
11 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
Juice of 3 lemons
Rinds of 2 lemons, grated
1/2 cup butter

Set oven to 340 degrees. Whisk the eggs and yolks together until they are frothy. Beat in the sugar, lemon juice, and rinds. Melt the butter on low heat. Cool it slightly and beat it into the eggs. Pour the mixture into a buttered, 4-cup, ovenproof dish and bake the pudding for 45 minutes. Serve hot or cold. Serves 12.

A delicious bright yellow custard with a sweet lemon flavor and a deep brown top.

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London Calling

American artist James McNeill Whistler arrived in London in 1859 and found its neighborhoods and inhabitants to be an inexhaustible source of aesthetic inspiration. His images of the city created over the next two decades represent one of his most successful and profound assaults on the contemporary art establishment.

In this video, Julian Raby, director of the Freer|Sackler, and Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art, discuss Whistler’s influences during this crucial period in his life. An American in London: Whistler and the Thames opens May 3 and runs through August 17, 2014. #americaninlondon

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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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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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Angry Birds?

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; Japan; late 19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; late 19th century;
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100


Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Hardly. When artists evoked avian melodies, as Thomas Dewing did in The Four Sylvan Soundsthey intended to soothe and refresh, to take the viewer out of “the harness of business” and into a more pleasant, “sylvan” realm. The sounds and scents of nature are mentioned with surprising frequency in Freer’s correspondence with artists and friends. Dewing used the sensory pleasures of a woodland ramble to induce Freer to visit him at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. “I wish you could be here,” Dewing wrote in June 1894, “taking in this cool fresh air filled with bird notes & scents of flowers.”

Two years later, the artist translated this experience into the visual language of painting, telling Freer he had begun work on a pair of screens representing “the four forest notes—the Hermit Thrush, the sound of running water, the woodpecker, and the wind through the pine trees.” These screens, now on view in Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan, incorporate a number of influences, the most direct being the natural beauty of the New England countryside. The figures were inspired by ancient Greek Tanagra figurines, and the theme came from a poem called “Wood Notes” by the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dewing’s debt to Japanese art is evident in the bifold format of the screens and the simplicity of the unframed panels. The flowers and forest leaves, some painted with a stencil, resemble the elegant, stylized patterns of many screens in Freer’s Japanese collection, along with the multisensory imagery denoting bird songs and rustling grasses.

Rectangular Dish, Japan, stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Rectangular dish; Japan; stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze;
19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Freer had purchased his first two Japanese folding screens early in 1896, just after returning from his first visit to Japan. Later that same year, Dewing began to paint The Four Sylvan Sounds. During the two years that Dewing worked on these panels, Freer acquired sixteen Japanese screens, twelve of which are now in the museum’s collection. After promising his art collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1906, Freer stipulated that his Japanese screens had to be displayed in a special gallery in a proposed new museum. He envisioned the space as a link between galleries devoted to Dewing and other American artists and those featuring the art of Whistler. This early arrangement underscored Freer’s belief in cross-cultural aesthetic connections between East and West—a principle theme in the current exhibition as well.

Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan remains on view through May 18, 2014.

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Almost Perfect: Maud Franklin and Whistler’s Wistful Impressions

 

Pink note: The Novelette

Pink note: The Novelette; James McNeill Whistler, early 1880s; watercolor on paper; F1902.158a-c

Maggie Abe, a student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, spent the summer in the Freer|Sackler’s American art department, where she was the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies intern and did research for an ongoing technical and art historical study of Whistler’s watercolors. She will graduate from Colby College in May 2014 with BAs in studio art and biology. The Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies is supported by the generosity of the Lunder Foundation and comprises the Freer|Sackler, the Colby College Museum of Art, the University of Glasgow, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite accusations of reducing them to arrangements, notes, and harmonies in his paintings, the women whom James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) kept for company were driving influences in his life and art. Although he vocally eschewed narrative in his works to focus on color, his feelings for his female subjects are couched in the subtleties of his compositions. Beneath carefully crafted color harmonies linger the unspoken wishes, unrealized fantasies, and quiet lamentations of a man probably not as aloof as he would have had the public believe.

Whistler’s complicated relationship with his long-term mistress and model Maud Franklin (1857–1941) provides the basis for several sentimental watercolors in the Freer collection. They were together for more than a decade, but because they never married, Maud was excluded from society. These watercolors are tender impressions of how Whistler saw Maud and wished she could be seen by his acquaintances: as his significant other deserving of their respect.

Pink note: The Novelette, Note in Opal: Breakfast, and Bravura in Brown, all painted from 1883–84, are united by a common formula. In all three, Maud is alone, but props such as empty chairs and rumpled bed sheets suggest her companion has only just stepped out. Reading or playing the piano, she is introspectively occupied: a demure woman in an attractive, but not ostentatious space. Unlike Whistler’s earlier oil Arrangement in White and Black, in which Maud’s youth and immodesty are hard to ignore, these watercolors do not put on a show, but rather leave a gentle impression. To Whistler, they were probably bittersweet, allowing him to pretend that his life with Maud was as pleasant and stable as the watercolors suggest. In reality, it was only on paper that she would be received by the homes of proper society.

Notwithstanding their volatile relationship, Whistler painted Maud with great affection in these watercolors. She is repeatedly depicted in rooms with art, the obsession of Whistler’s world. Paintings feature in the décor of all three rooms; indeed, one scholar suggests that the color of Maud’s blouse in Pink note: The Novelette is meant to connect her with the pink-tinged painting on the mantle. As Maud posed for more than 60 of Whistler’s paintings, drawings, and prints, it is hardly surprising that he would associate her with his art. By placing them together in these images, Whistler is acknowledging her influence in the development of his passion.

While such sentiment for a mistress seems to go against the grain of Whistler’s general reputation, it is important to note that these paintings were the products of his standing as an aging artist with an established name. Unlike the earlier days when he lived with his first mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, as a relatively unknown artist with something to prove, 50-year-old Whistler did not feel content living as a rogue on the fringes of society.

Whistler and Maud’s relationship began to suffer in 1879, when the artist went bankrupt and was forced to face reality. When he suddenly proposed to Beatrix Godwin (1857–1896) in 1888—a marriage that would provide him with stability, order, and favorable connections—it may have been that the opportune moment had finally presented itself after years of mounting discomfort.

The Sisters

The Sisters; James McNeill Whistler, 1894-95; lithograph on paper (transfer lithograph); F1903.82

In his marriage to Beatrix, Whistler seems to have attained the harmony that he had been courting in his watercolors. The wistful depictions of Maud in solitude are replaced by accounts of Beatrix and her sisters delighting in domestic bliss, though it would not last long. Hints of Beatrix’s terminal cancer surface in lithographs such as The Sisters—all would be well in this interior if it were not for Beatrix’s languishing posture. She appears weak beside her upright sister, and there is an air of concern polluting the peaceful scene.

The tables turned in Whistler’s art: in the watercolors, he altered Maud to satisfy his desire to change reality, but in later depictions of his ailing wife Beatrix, his art became an outlet for his grief. This time, it was an inescapable sickness that snapped Whistler from his reverie.

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Happy Birthday, Jimmy Whistler!

Whistler in his studio in Paris.

James McNeill Whistler in his Paris studio at 86 rue Notre Dame des Champs, 1890s. Photograph
by M. Dornac. Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Today marks the 179th anniversary of the birth of James McNeill Whistler, the expatriate American artist who played a key role in the aesthetic education of museum founder and Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919). It was Whistler who encouraged Freer to travel to Asia and seek out rare and ancient works of art to juxtapose with his own paintings and prints. Whistler envisioned art as a “story of the beautiful” that transcended time, space, and cultural circumstances. “The story of the beautiful is already complete,” he famously declared in his Ten O’Clock Lecture of 1885, “hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon and ‘broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai.”

Despite these lofty aesthetic pronouncements, Whistler was also very much a man of his time—a trendsetter, even. He took up residence in London’s Chelsea neighborhood while it was still “transitional,” contributing to the area’s soon-to-be-gentrified character, and his taste for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain launched the Victorian decorating craze known as Chinamania. He understood the expressive potential of fashion, too. Whistler was known for his carefully coiffed head of big hair, his monocle, and his patent leather dancing shoes, which he wore both for work in the studio and a night on the town. And he discerned the value of social networking and publicity in a way that now seems almost prescient. He wrote countless letters to editors, delivered dramatic public performances, hosted talked-about parties, and staged elaborately orchestrated exhibitions. It’s safe to say that if Whistler were alive today, he would embrace social media (at least, if he was the one deciding how and when to tweet or update his status) and interactive technology.

So, it is fitting that the Freer launches The Peacock Room Comes to America mobile app this month, which brings the gorgeous harmonies and dynamic history of Whistler’s famed decorative interior to anyone with an iPad or iPhone. Soon available for free download from the iTunes Store, the app includes an interactive panorama of the Peacock Room, lavish illustrations, and multimedia content, including a behind-the-scenes video of the room’s recent reinstallation. There’s also a chance to play curator by dropping and dragging digital ceramics onto a Whistler-decorated sideboard. Beginning this fall, visitors to the museum will be able to borrow iPads from the Freer information desk for use in the gallery.

Happy birthday, Jimmy! And welcome to the twenty-first century.

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Charles Lang Freer: A Wild and Crazy Guy?

Charles Lang Freer ca. 1905, Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.

Charles Lang Freer ca. 1905, Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler, takes a closer look at American art this month in honor of the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened its doors to the public on May 2, 1923.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Charles Lang Freer, captain of industry, connoisseur of fine art, and, eventually, founder of the Freer Gallery, was also a fan of banjo music. In 1897, he arranged for a famous banjo trio, the Doré Brothers, to travel from New York City to Detroit, where they performed at a formal dinner at the exclusive Detroit Club in honor of club-member Russell Alger’s appointment as Secretary of War under President McKinley. (Alger, a Civil War veteran, had made a fortune in the lumber business and was a major shareholder in Freer’s Peninsular Car Company.) On the evening of January 20, the Doré Brothers played a specially commissioned piece, “The Detroit Club March.” Freer, writing to American artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (another Doré Brothers fan), praised their performance as a great success.

Was there a wild and crazy guy behind that pince-nez and starched collar? Maybe … but then again, maybe not. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, there was a movement among some musicians to “elevate” the banjo, distancing it from its African origins and subsequent association with minstrel shows. By the 1880s, the banjo had become nearly as popular as the piano among wealthy, novelty-seeking young women. It was a full-blown fad on college campuses, whose banjo clubs typically performed orchestra-fashion, with guitars and mandolins. Professionals, among them the Doré Brothers, appeared in tuxedos and played serious European music arranged for banjo: well-known works by Wagner, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Chopin were all part of the banjo repertoire in the 1890s. “The Detroit Club March” wasn’t exactly high art, though, and it’s nice to think of what one Gilded Age critic called the banjo’s “half-barbaric twang … in harmony with the unmechanical melodies of the birds” enlivening a winter gathering of capitalists in black tie.

[Sources: Philadelphia Music and Drama, 1891; Thomas Wilmer to Charles Lang Freer, February 16, [1897] and March 2, [1897], Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives]

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Something Fishy at the Freer House

Freer’s bill for fish, dated January 1, 1906

Freer’s fish bill, part two

Maya Foo is a curatorial assistant at Freer|Sackler, and curator of the exhibition Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London.

You can learn a lot about a person from their grocery bills.

Charles Lang Freer kept nearly every piece of paper that entered his house—including bills from the dairy and cheesemonger, the dry goods store, and other merchants—which shed fascinating light on his day-to-day living expenses, eating habits, and activities. For example, I came across a bill for 27 pounds of butter from August 1906. That’s a lot of butter for one man! What on earth was he eating?

This 1906 bill from George H. Giddey’s Headquarters for Oysters, Fish and Game, which is included in the Charles Lang Freer papers and is housed in the Freer|Sackler Archives, shows all of the seafood ordered by Freer’s in-house cook in December 1905. One can imagine what Freer ate for Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners. Cioppino (Italian seafood stew), perhaps? Or maybe he combined his love for butter and fish and went with sole meuniere?

December 23:
3 ½ [pounds] Salmon
2 Lobsters
2 [pounds] White [fish]

December 26:
9 [pounds] Long Neck Clams
2 [pounds] White [fish]

Hopefully, he had company to help him eat so much seafood!

Best fishes for a happy holiday from Freer|Sackler.

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