Tag Archives: Charles Lang Freer

Revisiting Whistler’s Neighborhood: Freer and Whistler’s Final Days Together

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

“A gentler, nobler, purer soul never entered heaven if such a place exists. His art and his life are one!”
—Charles Lang Freer to his business partner, Frank Hecker, July 18, 1903, one day after Whistler’s death

 

The Freer|Sackler’s grand reopening on October 14 has prompted reflection upon the relationship between the Freer Gallery of Art’s founder, Charles Lang Freer, and his favorite American artist, James McNeill Whistler. Whistler and Freer were not the typical artist-patron duo. They were close friends who genuinely cared for each other, their relationship extending beyond their shared belief in Whistler’s artistic genius. Freer’s loyalty and respect for Whistler is displayed not only in his glowing comments and enthusiastic collecting, but through his actions in the final days of Whistler’s life and the time just after the artist’s death.

Whistler’s Final Days

Freer and Whistler met in 1890, but it was only in the last few years of the artist’s life that they spent a lot of time together, meeting throughout Europe and especially in London, Whistler’s adopted home. At the time, Whistler lived at 74 Cheyne Walk with his two sisters-in-law, Rosalind and Ethel; he had grown close to his late wife’s family following her death in 1896. Whistler made Rosalind his executrix and sole heir. She worked hard to care for him and, later, to preserve his art historical legacy.

Freer was also a source of support and friendship. Whistler was put on bed rest following a heart attack he had on a 1902 trip to Holland that he and Freer took together. In the aftermath of this incident, Freer was extremely attentive to Whistler’s health and full of praise for the artist:

“Of course, I must stand by the illness regardless of earlier plans. So in the future my movements will depend entirely upon his condition. He is very weak and still brave as a lion. A most extraordinary man!!”
—Freer to Hecker, June 27, 1902

Despite his high praise of Whistler and attentiveness to his condition, Freer was reluctant to recognize how seriously ill Whistler was in the spring of 1903, just months before his death. Freer even talked of sitting for an unfinished portrait that Whistler had begun the year before, when he was in better health:

“Shall you be in Chelsea after June 15th? and if you are in the mood would you be willing to resume work on my Portrait?”
—Freer to Whistler, March 30, 1903

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

By the summer of 1903, Freer was visiting Whistler daily, making a daily trek from his hotel in Grosvenor Square to Whistler’s home in Chelsea. Freer took his ailing friend on carriage rides and sometimes journeyed with him across the river to Battersea Park. The Thames was a fitting setting for Whistler’s final excursions, as the river and its landmarks were ever-present in his life and in his art.

If Freer ever failed to visit, Whistler would call upon him to make sure he would be coming again soon. Whistler sent a number of telegraphs to Freer at the end of his life, each expressing his desire to see his friend daily. Their correspondence illustrates how strong and sweet their friendship had become, intensified, no doubt, by an awareness of mortality. Their letters and telegrams are full of mutual respect and appreciation: an ideal artist-patron relationship. It is clear that Whistler cherished and relied on these visits from Freer and that Freer was always happy to come and see him.

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four." Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four.” Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

On July 16, 1903, Freer and Whistler drove their carriage through St. James and Hyde parks. After the ride, Whistler seemed refreshed; he played dominoes with Ethel and Rosalind before dinner. The next day, Friday, July 17, Freer arrived to pick Whistler up for another ride when he learned that Whistler had collapsed from a fatal blood clot in the brain five minutes prior to his arrival.

The Funeral

After Whistler’s death, Freer worked closely with the artist’s family to make arrangements for the funeral. He even served as a pallbearer. The funeral procession began at Whistler’s house and progressed up the street to St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church, where the artist’s mother, Anna, had worshiped. Whistler was buried next to his wife, Beatrice, at Chiswick St. Nicholas, a churchyard about four miles away from Cheyne Walk.

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. "Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church"; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. “Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church”; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Hundreds of people gathered to memorialize the artist who had become as well-known for his antagonistic feelings toward the British art establishment as he was for his enigmatic portraits and depictions of the Thames. The hordes of people created a spectacle that surely would have entertained Whistler, who delighted in publicity. The following are some highlights from the funeral photographs, now part of the Pennell-Whistler Collection at the Library of Congress.

The hearse travels to Chiswick to lay Whistler to rest on July 22, 1903.

The funeral procession moves towards St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church.

Charles Lang Freer, James Guthrie, John Lavery, Edwin Abbey, Theodore Duret, and George Vanderbilt serve as pallbearers and carry Whistler’s casket down Cheyne Walk. Guthrie was an Irish painter, Lavery a Scottish one, and Abbey an American. Duret was a noted French critic. Vanderbilt, whose family had amassed a fortune in railroads and other business ventures, was American as well. Although he spent his entire professional life in London, Whistler had not a single English artist, critic, or collector in his funeral entourage.

People gather in Chiswick’s St. Nicholas churchyard, where Whistler is laid to rest beside his late wife, Trixie.

 

 

 

 

The day after Whistler died, Freer had concluded a letter to Frank Hecker by noting: “Need I say that in all things of perfect refinement of beauty the greatest masters are now all gone—at least all known masters.” Freer not only understood Whistler’s pursuit of beauty in his artwork and in his life, but truly believed that Whistler’s art had achieved this “perfect refinement of beauty.” Whistler was all-consumed by thoughts of his legacy in the later years of his life, and Freer’s assessment of him as the last known “greatest master” is one that Whistler surely would have embraced. Freer’s postscript to Whistler’s death was a fitting final tribute from patron to artist, and from one friend to another.

Stay tuned for part two of this exploration of Whistler’s neighborhood.

 

Daniel E. Sutherland’s biography Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake informed this post.

Aleppo: An Ancient City of Enduring Appeal

Citadel from outside Bab Antakiya, Ernst Herzfeld Papers

Citadel of Aleppo from outside Bab Antakiya, Ernst Herzfeld Papers

The Syrian city of Aleppo has received a lot of coverage recently due to the widespread destruction from years of civil war. In spite of this, the city is still one of the great architectural treasures of the Middle East, which has drawn travelers and scholars for centuries.

Citadel of Aleppo (Syria): early 19th century etching, Ernst Herzfeld Papers

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer visited the city in 1908, no doubt in his search for the lustrous pottery type associated with the nearby city of Raqqa. Although travel conditions prevented a visit to Raqqa, Freer was delighted with Aleppo, writing on June 19 to his business partner Frank Hecker, “Aleppo is a charming surprise – a beautiful ancient city, and in every way more attractive than I had fancied.” Among the hundreds of photographs he collected of Asia and the Middle East are twelve lovely views in and around Aleppo, likely acquired during his visit.

Photograph of Aleppo collected by Charles Lang Freer

Photograph of Aleppo collected by Charles Lang Freer, Charles Lang Freer Papers

Likewise, the renowned German scholar Ernst Herzfeld traveled many times to Aleppo during his decades of research and exploration in the Middle East. While his historical inscriptions of Aleppo were not published until after his death, the extraordinary number of drawings, photographs, and research notes in the Herzfeld collection is an important repository for the study of the city’s architectural heritage, so imperiled by recent conflicts.

Interior of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo

Interior of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, Ernst Herzfeld Papers

This month, we have combined selections from these two collections into a slide show, currently on display outside of the museum shop and on YouTube.

Case Studies

Freer's "Book of Suggestions" contains sketches that inspired his thoughts on exhibition design and casework.

Freer’s “Book of Suggestions” contains sketches that inspired his thoughts on exhibition design and casework.

Talented carpenters, craftspeople, and exhibits specialists have been making our frames, cases, and vitrines ever since the Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer took an interest in all aspects of displaying his art, from lighting to the proper way to make a case for ceramics. When the museum was still in the planning stages and Freer was looking for ideas as well as inspiration, he asked his assistant, Katharine Rhoades, to keep a notebook he titled “Book of Suggestions.” In it, Rhoades noted Freer’s ideas for exhibition cases and drew sketches of carpentry work he admired in other museums. At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1918, for example, he took an interest in ways to display Syrian Rakka ware and mounts for bowls.

This attention to detail continues today throughout the Freer|Sackler (take a look courtesy of Google Art Project!). Cases protect the works, ensure their safety, and provide visitors the opportunity to get up close with rare works of art.

Come visit soon! While the Freer Gallery will close its doors on January 4, 2016, for renovation, the Sackler will remain open. Our fully digitized collections are always on view at Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Sunflower Andirons

Sunflower and irons; Thomas Jeckyll; England, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, FSC-M-66a–b

Sunflower and irons; Thomas Jeckyll; England, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, FSC-M-66a–b

These metal andirons were created by the Peacock Room’s original architect, Thomas Jeckyll, to complement the room’s beautiful design—a form of architectural jewelry, if you will. Although they’re not currently on view, the andirons remind me of the delightfully quirky humanity that often hides behind great masterpieces.

Decorated by American ex-pat artist James McNeill Whistler, the Peacock Room is a magnum opus: a breathtaking combination of artistic genius, technical mastery, and hubris. Visitors step inside and gasp. Crowds gather when the shutters open every third Thursday of the month. It is, without doubt, the most recognizable, memorable, and photographed single installation in the Freer|Sackler.

With its imposing importance, it’s easy to forget that the room was built to be a functional dining room—with, of course, a functioning fireplace. It was built for shipping magnate Frederick Leyland and his family’s London home. I like to imagine the meals and conversations held in this space, the fires that were poked at day in and day out. The Leylands must have fretted over details, planned menus, and proudly showed off their matching andirons to admiring guests.

It is also deeply human. The drama of the room’s decoration is arguably trumped by the stories of the people involved—the patron, Leyland; the architect, Jeckyll; the collector, Freer; and of course, the artist, Whistler. The andirons were commissioned by Leyland, a testament to his impressive attention to appearances, and acquired by Freer, a testament to Freer’s no less impressive quest to assemble Whistler’s complete oeuvre, down to the smallest detail.

The Peacock Room’s most dramatic personal histories take center stage with the incredible reimagining that opens May 16, Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre. You won’t want to miss it! In the meantime, enjoy the details.

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!

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.

In the Swim: Dolphins in Ancient Egypt

Photograph of the Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, taken by Ernst Herzfeld in 1908, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

The Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, photo by Ernst Herzfeld, 1908,
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

Alex Nagel is assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at the Freer|Sackler.

For every modern traveler to the southern Mediterranean, dolphins are a familiar image along the coast of North Africa. The ancients also loved dolphins, and dolphins, it seemed, loved them. The Roman author Pliny the Elder described how a dolphin at the settlement of Hippo Diarrhytos on the North African shore ate from people’s hands. The dolphin also offered himself to their touch, played as they swam, and often gave people a ride on its back. The Roman author Claudius Aelianus (ca. 175–235) described the dolphin as the king of sea animals. In ancient Greece, dolphins were prominently featured on coins, while in Hindu mythology the dolphin is associated with Ganga, the deity of the Ganges River.

Glass Dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

Glass dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

A year after the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) traveled the Nile River in 1909, Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), while on a trip to Egypt, acquired a collection of more than one thousand ancient Egyptian glass objects from the dealer Giovanni Dattari (1858–1923). Among them were two glass objects in the shape of a dolphin. Their original function is unknown, and today we can only guess what they might have meant to their original owners. Dattari, whom Freer had first met on a trip to Cairo in 1907, was an employee of a travel agency and also worked as a purveyor to the British Army in Egypt. His villa in Cairo was a welcoming meeting place for foreign archaeologists, Egyptologists, and businessmen. Dattari was well connected to excavations in Egypt and knew the English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), who excavated at the extensive archaeological site of Amarna on the east bank of the Nile River. Today, almost every major museum on the eastern coast of the United States is a proud holder of materials from Dattari’s collections.

Look for dolphins and other creatures in the exhibition The Nile and Ancient Egypt, opening at the Freer Gallery on December 7 and remaining on view indefinitely.

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.

Busted! The Secret Lives of Agnes Meyer and Charles Lang Freer

Head of Agnes Meyer by Charles Despiau; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Ruth Meyer Epstein; FSC-M-69

“Head of Agnes Meyer” by Charles Despiau; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Ruth Meyer Epstein; FSC-M-69

Claire Douglas, a student of American studies and studio art at Occidental College, was a summer intern in the American art department at Freer|Sackler.

It’s easy to walk into the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium in the Freer Gallery without giving the bronze bust of Mrs. Meyer in the entryway a second thought. Head of Agnes Meyer, which was sculpted by Charles Despiau (1874–1946) in 1928 and installed in the Freer Gallery in 1992, is just what one might expect to find in a theater named after an old-money family—a conservative portrait in a traditional medium of a beautiful woman with downcast eyes, betraying little in her expression.

Meyer’s name may ring a bell with Washingtonians—she was the mother of Katharine Graham, the legendary publisher of the Washington Post, and wrote for the Post herself. She spent the later part of her life as an activist for labor, civil, and women’s rights, earning her a spot on President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women. She was also passionate about Asian art, which inevitably led to a great friendship with Detroit industrialist and museum founder Charles Lang Freer. Agnes Meyer’s contributions to the founding and early history of the Freer Gallery were vast. She bequeathed pieces from her own priceless collection of Asian art to the museum and worked with curators and directors to ensure that the museum reflected Freer’s original vision. Significantly, only she and Freer’s secretary, Katharine Nash Rhoades, had carte-blanche in making new acquisitions for the museum after Freer’s death. Mrs. Meyer’s official legacy as an accomplished and influential woman, whose public persona is embodied in Despiau’s bust, lives on after her death in 1970.

Yet the story that Despiau’s portrait conceals in its conventional form is equally as interesting. Agnes Meyer, or Agnes Ernst as she was known before her marriage to multimillionaire banker Eugene Meyer, was not quite the circumspect matronly type that her bronze statue suggests. During her youth, she actually had a notorious reputation among art and society circles as a social butterfly, a shameless gossip, and a flirt. Her radiant personality earned her the nickname “Sun Girl” in Alfred Stieglitz’s circle of avant-garde artists, and a spot as one of the most coveted subjects for painters, sculptors, photographers, and poets. Even after her marriage in 1910, she maintained scandalously passionate and intimate friendships with such powerful men as photographer Edward Steichen, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and, of course, Charles Lang Freer.

Agnes Meyer first met Freer at an exhibition of Chinese paintings in a New York City gallery in 1913, and later recalled an intense connection from the moment they shook hands. She quickly nicknamed Freer, who was 59 to her 26, “Prince Charming.” Freer’s health was seriously failing by 1913, but Meyer nevertheless portrayed the seemingly staid connoisseur as a longtime ladies’ man. As reticent as Meyer was flamboyant, Freer rarely divulged details about his personal life—including his sexuality. She later recalled “His numerous relationships with the opposite sex, which were no secret from his many friends.” When she visited Freer in Detroit, her husband insisted that she bring along a friend to accompany her “into the dangerous lair of Prince Charming.” She and her beautiful young friends Marion Beckett and Katharine Rhoades all began to pay Freer visits. He called the group of young ladies the “Three Graces” and they affectionately called him “The General.”

But Agnes’ carefree and punchy personality also made her a magnet for controversy. In 1970, more than fifty years after Freer’s death and shortly before her own, she published a memoir about their unique relationship entitled Charles Lang Freer and His Gallery. Told through the filter of memory and filled with previously unknown accounts of Freer’s personal life, this short pamphlet stirred up so much controversy that for a time it was banned from the Freer Gallery’s library. Full of tales of Freer’s philandering in Europe with Stanford White, his fiery temper later in life, and the “exquisite” quality of their personal relationship, Charles Lang Freer and His Gallery says as much about Mrs. Meyer as it does about Mr. Freer.

Agnes E. Meyer by Constantin Brancusi, marble, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; F1967.13.4

“Agnes E. Meyer” by Constantin Brancusi, marble, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; 1967.13.4

Even the bronze bust itself, so modest and unassuming in appearance, stirred up controversy in the art world. Upon hearing that his rival Charles Despiau had created a likeness of Mrs. Meyer, modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi is said to have declared to her, “[I will show you] what a portrait of you is really like!” Three years later, in 1929, he finished a sleek, monumental black marble sculpture entitled Agnes E. Meyer: La Reine pas Dedaigneuse (the Not-Disdainful Queen), which towers seven-and-a-half feet tall. Even though it is hardly recognizable as a human figure, lacking the detail of Despiau’s bust, Brancusi’s work manages to evoke Meyer’s naturally intense and mesmerizing presence. Brancusi’s larger-than-life stylistic challenge to Despiau is now housed at the National Gallery of Art.

So the next time you attend an event at the Meyer Auditorium, take a moment to consider the demure bronze bust that greets you on your way to your foreign film screening or scholarly lecture. If Agnes Meyer, for all her eccentricities, her love of gossip and mischief, and her affinity for controversy, could be immortalized as this proper and staid-faced woman, what other wild stories may lurk behind the manicured façade of the Freer Gallery?

Freer @ 90: Early Acquisitions

Satsuma ware bottle by Kano Tangen from the Edo period, acquired by Charles Lang Freer in 1892.

This year, we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art. When it opened in 1923, the Freer became the first fine art museum on the Smithsonian campus. But the story is older than that: In 1906, Freer offered his collections of Asian and American art to the nation, a gift he had proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt the year before.

In the late 1880s, Freer began collecting American works of art, most notably paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler. It was Whistler who turned his patron’s attention to the East. In 1887, Freer purchased his first Asian art object: a Japanese fan, which he bought from Takayanagi Tozo, an importer of “high class Japanese art objects and a choice collector of bric-a-brac” with a storefront in New York City. From the same dealer, in 1892, Freer acquired his first Japanese ceramic: an 18th-century Satsuma ware jar with an underglaze blue decoration (pictured above) that reminded Freer of Whistler’s landscapes. In 1893, Freer again made a purchase from Takayanagi: his first Chinese painting, a small Ming dynasty scroll of herons.

Freer’s interest in Asia led him to take multiple tours of the continent, his first in 1894 and his last in 1911. By the end of that final visit to Asia, Freer was an internationally recognized collector and connoisseur of Asian art.

Throughout this anniversary year, we’ll take a look at some of the highlights from the more than 24,000 objects in the Freer Gallery’s renowned collection.