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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]

Posted by in A Closer Look, American Art | No Comments

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.

Posted by in A Closer Look, From the Collections, Japanese Art | No Comments