Art Treasures of Washington – The Freer Collection

” THERE are, at the present time, two living men at least whose minds are wide-awake to the historical importance of oriental art in its bearing on our cultural development, and in its immense fruit-fulness to our own art life — Dr. Bode, who is planning to found an Asiatic museum in Berlin, and Mr. Charles L. Freer, ,who has made the American people heirs to the finest existing collection of Chinese art. It is a collection broad and universal in scope, but, at the same time, one of harmony and unity of thought, the same leading motive and personal spirit pervading the magnificent specimens of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, and far eastern pottery, ancient Egyptian coloured glass, Persian and Hindu miniature paintings, and the painting, bronze, and sculpture of China and Japan. And the genius of Whistler, a reincarnation of one of the ancient masters of the East, soars above these emanations of the oriental world as the spiritual link connecting the Orient and the Occident.

” Mr.. Freer occupies an exceptional place among collectors. He has never been accumulative, but rather selective in his methods ; with a sincere appreciation of all manifestations of art, and deliberate judgment, he has himself visited the East many times, and in full sympathy with oriental peoples, imbibed a profound understanding of their artistic sentiments and aspirations. Mr. Freer is the only great collector in our country who has sought and seized opportunities in China. He was privileged to enter the sanctum of many Chinese collectors and connoisseurs of high standing, and he was fortunate in securing masterpieces of the most indisputable artistic value. It is in the American national collection that, for the first time, our eyes are opened to the choicest specimens of ancient Chinese painting, and the nation has every reason to look up with pride to this treasure house and to feel grateful to the man who has become a national benefactor by bringing within the reach of all the message of the great teachings of eastern art. In their works of the brush the Chinese have inculcated their finest feelings, and no better means could be found for an appreciation of the true spirit of China than a study of her ancient masters. The American national collection now takes the lead in Chinese art and will form the basis for important research work to be carried on in this line. What-ever the future results of such research may be, whether the evidence in favour of the authenticity of individual pieces will be strengthened or to a certain extent modified, this will not detract from the intrinsic value of these precious documents, greater than which no other period in the history of art can boast. The grand old masters of the T’ang and Sung periods are restored to life before our eyes and speak to us their suave language of murmuring brooks, splashing cascades, glistening lakes, and rustling firs and pines. China thus is more awake for us than ever before, and she is awakened to full life in the displays of the National Gallery.” — Berthold Laufer.

The Charles L. Freer Collection became the property of the nation, by deed of gift, dated May 5, 1906. The terms of the gift provide that the collections ,are to be retained by Mr. Freer during his life, subject to additions and improvements. With this munificent gift is promised a bequest of five hundred thousand dollars, to be paid to the regents of the Smithsonian Institution, upon the death of the donor, and to be used for the erection of a fireproof building, connected with the National Museum, or reasonably near thereto, according to plans and specifications to be agreed upon. This building shall be used solely and exclusively for the installation of the Freer Collection, and must be planned and equipped with regard for the convenience of students and others desirous of an opportunity for uninterrupted study of the objects enumerated in the gift.

The deed further provides that the building shall bear the donor’s name; that it shall be permanently maintained without expense to his estate; and that after his death the collections shall be neither increased nor diminished.

The original collection, conveyed by deed of gift, comprised about two thousand two hundred and fifty objects; but the additions since made, have increased the number to over four thousand. Roughly, the collection contains the following specimens : paintings in oil, water colour, ,and pastel, by living American painters, eighty-five; paintings in oil, water colour, and pastel, and drawings and sketches, by James A. McNeill Whistler, about two hundred and fifty; etchings, dry-points, and litho-graphs, by James A. McNeill Whistler, about eight hundred and fifty; the decorations of the Peacock Room complete; Chinese and Japanese paintings, scrolls, screens, panels, kakemono, and albums, over nine hundred ; pottery, including Chinese, Corean, Japanese, Persian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian, over fifteen hundred ; Chinese bronzes, over one hundred; and a collection of Egyptian glass, presumably the largest known.

In number and quality of early works of the oriental masters the collection stands unrivalled in America and Europe, and several of the finest works included were obtained from their imperial owners direct. Each object was gathered by Mr. Freer personally; and so great is his knowledge of the subject that Fenollosa considered him ” the greatest living expert in artistic pottery, and of Chinese and Japanese painting the most inwardly appreciative.”

The collection consists largely of oriental art, many of the specimens having come direct from China. As yet little opportunity has been afforded experts to study the exhibits ; and until inscriptions, signatures, seals, and other details can have the attention of scholars, little of real interest concerning the individual objects can be written.

The collection represents the labour and undivided attention of the donor during a period of over twenty years. It begins with the work of Whistler, runs back through the greatest Chinese and Japanese artists to the Christian era, and includes seven modern painters.

It was in 1888 that Mr. Freer first met Whistler, whose work sounds the keynote of the collection, becoming an intimate friend and liberal patron of the artist. His collection of Whistler’s work alone constitutes a rare treasure for the National Gallery, containing, as it does, many masterpieces and a comprehensive survey of the various phases of the master’s art.

Mr. Freer was the purchaser of the famous Peacock Room, called a Harmony in Blue and Gold,” that marvellous creation of Whistler, made for the London residence of the late Mr. F. R. Leyland. While the British government was discussing the propriety of ,acquiring this superb trophy for the nation, the American collector quietly paid the price demanded and became its proud possessor. This room will be reconstructed in its entirety and will be one of the most prominent features of the gallery.

Whistler was commissioned to paint Leyland’s wife, his four children; and himself. The oil painting of the shipowner was the only one completed. Whistler painted him, standing, in evening dress, and this canvas is included in the Freer Collection. The portrait is not so familiar as others of the full-lengths, and it was not shown until the London Memorial Exhibition of Whistler’s works brought it to light. It is one of his many arrangements in black, and it marks the painter’s breaking away from the purely decorative treatment, as instanced in the portrait of the artist’s mother, the Carlyle, and Miss Alexander, to broader atmospheric effects which absorbed him in later portraits. The can-vas was completed under difficulties, which are thus described in the Pennells’ ” Life of Whistler : ”

” Leyland told Val Princep that Whistler nearly cried over the drawing of the legs. Mr. Greaves says that ` he painted them out again and again, and finally had in a model to pose for it nude.’ ‘ It was finished in the winter of 1873. He also painted a study for it, shown in the London Memorial Exhibition. In the portrait of Leyland he began to suppress the background, to put the figures into the atmosphere in which they stood, without any accessories. The problem was now the atmospheric envelope, to make the figures stand in this atmosphere, as far within their frames as he stood from them when he painted them, and at this problem he worked as long as he lived.”

Another interesting full-length included in the collection is Jeune Femme, dite 1′Americaine Arrangement in Black and White. No. 1.” This is a portrait of Maud Franklin, Whistler’s model for many years. It is of about the same period, though much less famous than the portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell ” The Yellow Buskin.” Shown at the exhibition of British Artists in the eighties, it passed into a private collection in Germany, where it remained in obscurity until a few years after Whistler’s death.

While these two portraits are less notable than the several disputed masterpieces of the painter, both have the unmistakable quality which is Whistler. In the portrait of the wealthy shipowner, one notes the compelling personality and dramatic simplicity of observation and portrayal, which mark a rare work of art; while the ” Jeune Femme is treated with a classic feeling for movement and action, not far removed from the Tanagra sculptures. The black and white scheme is well carried out, the envelopment of the canvas convincingly felt and the modelling, and rich colouring of the face, subtly expressed. The picture hangs in the original frame, designed and decorated by the artist.

Mr. Freer was also the purchaser of that famous full-length ” Rose and Silver : La Princess du Pays de la Porcelaine,” shown in a group of the painter’s works at the World’s Fair, Chicago, and later at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and amongst other portraits the collection includes a sketch of the artist and a portrait of Major Whistler.

Nocturnes, landscapes, and a multitude of those wonderful canvases that Whistler called arrangements, are included in the collection. The nocturnes form a group of unusual interest, and comprise the memorable “Blue and Gold : Valparaiso,” from the McCullough collection, the result of Whistler’s visit to South America. ” Blue and Silver: Battersea Reach ” is one of the most beautiful, with its sense of distant objects, felt, rather than seen, through the melting, mysterious envelopment, the long line of lights on the far bridge stretched like a string of jewels across the shadowy water.

” The Little Green Cap ” is typical of Whistler’s latest period, and is one of those charming impressions of children which so much interested the painter toward the end of his life. ” The Little Blue and Gold Girl ” and ” Rose and Gold : The Little Lady of Soho ” are amongst the chief treasures of the collection.

The collections of drawings and sketches, etchings and dry-points, lithographs, and original cop-per plates are comprehensive and fine. Amongst the rarest is the famous Thames set, of sixteen copper plates, of which there is an impression from each plate, printed after the plates had been defaced.

The transition from Whistler to the orientais is a natural and logical one. The collection is rich in oriental paintings, especially Chinese. Two Buddhist paintings of Kwan-yin, male and female deities, are amongst the most ancient and remarkable. The female goddess is attributed to Chang Sêng yu, an artist who flourished in the Liang dynasty, or about the sixth century. It is a masterpiece of beauty of conception and charm of rendering. The figure of the god is by an unknown artist of the school of Wu Tao-tzu. In both the motive of the picture is the same, and refers to a religious myth of these ancient peoples. The painting is on silk and the colour wonderfully preserved.

A portrait of an emperor of China stands for a typical national figure — bold, liberal, gifted, and considerate. The philosopher Lao-tze, by Chou Fang, who flourished from 780 to 805, is the only authentic portrait of this, the greatest thinker of China. This artistic and historical document rep-resents the sage absorbed in meditation created by the music of a curious stringed instrument, upon which he plays. He is surrounded by objects of religious significance; while, in the background, a young woman prepares the tea. This work once belonged to an imperial collection and is now one of the chief treasures of the Freer gift.

The gem of the collection, according to experts, is a long, symphonic composition, or epic narrative, catalogued ” Landscape,” and signed Li Ssú-hsn, an artist of the T’ang dynasty. This is also from an imperial collection. The landscape is one long, continuous panorama, depicting, in blue, green, and gold, the incidents of a mountainous country, as they were revealed to an imaginative and highly religious mind.

Many handsome screens representing the work of Honnami Koyetsu, Tawaraya Sotatsu, Ogata Korin, Ogata Kenzan, Yeitoku Kano, and Mori Sosen are included in the collection, as well as a great variety of pottery, bronzes, sculpture, glass, and illuminations, all of great beauty and rarity.

In presenting the collection to the nation, Mr. Freer makes the following explanation of its scope : ” These several collections include specimens of widely separated periods of artistic development, beginning before the birth of Christ, and ending to-day. No attempt has been made to secure specimens from unsympathetic sources, my collection having been confined to American and Asiatic schools. My great desire has been to unite mod-ern work with masterpieces of certain periods of high civilization, harmonious in spiritual and physical suggestion, having the power to broaden aesthetic culture, and the grace to elevate the human mind.”

The jump from the orientais to the seven modern painters is thus explained. The collection contains beautiful paintings by Twachtman and Wins-low Homer. A water colour, by the latter, included in the preliminary exhibition of a small section of the collection, installed in the National Museum, from April 15 to June 15, 1912, and entitled ” Waterfall in the Adirondacks,” is one of the most admirable of the great series of works in this medium, which Homer left to posterity. The composition occurs immediately before the fall, which makes, as it were, the background for the minor incident. To the left, a mass of wreckage has been cast up by the whirl of the water, and upon these rough logs, a hardy fisherman, clad in oil skins and a sou’wester, is seated, fishing. He holds his rod, bent double with the weight and strain of a huge salmon, which he has just pulled from the water, and whose pink body makes a joyous note of colour on the opposite side of the waterfall. The moment is intensely dramatic, the situation hazardous and stimulating; while the whole is a true and glorious impression of nature.

Abbott Handerson Thayer is handsomely represented in the Freer Collection, by both landscapes and figure pieces. ” The Virgin,” a well-known composition of three figures, is one of the painter’s most interesting canvases, while ” Diana,” painted from one of the artist’s children, is a Juno-like figure, statuesque in pose, and of a simplicity of modelling eminently satisfying.

Of Thomas Wilmer Dewing there is a larger series, including many of the same general theme, carefully selected, and of the painter’s best. ” A Lady playing a Violoncello ” is a superb example of Dewing’s tender and sympathetic drawing, and exquisite finish.

Gari Melchers is represented by a portrait of a former president, and Dwight W. Tryon by a long series of oil paintings, water colours, and pastels.