The Freer Gallery of Art, located at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, is considered to be the nation’s foremost museum of Asian art. It recently received national attention when the famous Peacock Room, a London dining room decorated by James McNeil Whistler, reopened after being restored to its 1908 appearance. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer, who had purchased the room and had it moved to his Detroit mansion in 1906, was no run-of-the-mill robber baron, shipping crated castles and Old Masters paintings from Europe to an ostentatious New York City mansion. By following Whistler’s advice to collect art from the Far and Middle East, he created his own extraordinary niche.
The quality of the collection and the original setting for the display of the vases, scrolls, bronzes, prints and other works – his house had glazed walls in jewellike hues and linen-covered skylights, so as to diffuse the light – were a testament to his refined sensibility and keen eye. Freer’s Arts-and-Crafts-style house, which has been preserved, was designed by Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre, and its simple masses and relative plainness reflected its owner’s sensitivity to the first stirrings of Modernism.
The story of Freer’s phenomenal success as a businessman begins in Ulster County, where he was born in 1854 in Kingston to a family descended from Hugo Freer, one of the French Huguenot founders of New Paltz. His later aesthetic sense and rapport with artists is all the more remarkable, considering his lack of formal education: Freer dropped out of school at age 14, when his mother Phoebe Townsend died, to support his invalid father Jacob Roosa Freer and his siblings, by working as a clerk in a general store in Kingston.
There he was discovered by Frank J. Hecker, a manager of the Rondout & Oswego Railroad, who hired the enterprising, hardworking teenager as a bookkeeper and then brought him to Indiana to help him manage the Eel River Railroad. After the line was bought out by investors, the two went to Detroit, where they founded a railroad freightcar manufacturing company. The company became extremely successful, but its profits paled compared to the windfall that Freer and Hecker reaped when they cashed out after a series of consolidations. At age 45, Freer retired from business and began collecting art.
The Peacock Room was originally designed for the dining room of Frederick Leyland, a British shipping magnate. “A harmony in blue and gold,” Whistler called it; he painted the emerald and sapphire-blue walls with swirls of gilt peacocks, installed an elaborate Art Nouveau coffered ceiling hung with budlike pendant lights and added gilded shelves to display Leyland’s Chinese porcelain. It’s a spectacular example of Whistler’s “East-meets-West” aesthetic, which, as mentioned, was an important influence on Freer, who after meeting Whistler in 1890 was to become his most generous patron (and apparently had a much greater appreciation of Whistler’s decorating efforts than Leyland, who didn’t like the finished Peacock Room).
Whistler encouraged Freer – a fastidious, low-key bachelor with a Van Dyck beard – to visit Asia and the Middle East. In 1894 Freer made the first of five trips, purchasing ancient manuscripts in Syria and Egypt, bronzes in India and Sri Lanka, scrolls and screens in Japan and ceramics and jade in China and Korea. He eventually acquired 30,000 objects, which he bequeathed to the Smithsonian, footing the $1 million cost of constructing a new museum shortly before his death in 1919.
Freer is buried at Kingston’s Wiltwyck Cemetery, and his tombstone, which was erected in 1922, recently came under scrutiny by Freer Gallery researcher Rachael Cristine Woody, who investigated the two birthdates in an attempt to clarify the correct one. According to Woody, the evidence for 1854, which is used by the Freer Gallery, consists of the following: his tombstone (though the Freer family genealogist noted that even gravestones are sometimes wrong); the inscription in the Freer Family Bible, located at the Huguenot Historical Society; the 1860 Census Record; Freer’s 1894 passport application; and his 1918 letter to a friend, in which he writes that he will soon be turning 64.
The evidence for the 1856 birthdate is as follows: the 1900 Census Record; his 1899 passport application; various obituaries, including the one in The New York Times; a letter to another friend, dated 1906, in which he notes that he’ll be turning 50 that February; and letters and a publication by his assistant in the last years of his life, Katherine Rhoades. Woody concludes that the evidence favors the 1856 date, though she acknowledges the impossibility of an absolute answer, adding to Freer’s mystique (his lack of a wife has led to speculation that he was either a rake or gay, but there is no evidence of either, according to one source).
Whatever: My advice is to skip the grave at Wiltwyck and travel to Washington to visit the Peacock Room, where one discovers the true object of Freer’s passion, once again resplendent in green, blue and gold.