History and Building
When the Freer Gallery opened to the public in 1923, it became the first art museum on the Smithsonian campus. The Freer story, however, began in 1906, when Charles Lang Freer gave his collection of Asian and American art to the nation, a gift he had proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt a year before. By exploring the differences in arts from around the world, the Freer Gallery of Art would unite, in Freer’s own words, “modern work with masterpieces of certain periods of high civilization harmonious in spiritual suggestion.”
The museum’s galleries enable visitors to view American paintings from the Aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century, as well as the arts of China, Egypt, the Indian subcontinent, Japan, Korea, and the Islamic world.
The Peacock Room
James McNeill Whistler titled his famed creation Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, but its early life seemed to have more to do with peacocks than with harmony. The Peacock Room was originally a drawing room, designed by architect Thomas Jeckyll, in the home of British shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland. It housed Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain as well as Whistler’s painting Princess from the Land of Porcelain. While Leyland was out of town, Whistler took it upon himself to redecorate the space, which left the owner a bit out of sorts and put an end to their friendship.
After Leyland’s death, Freer acquired the painting and then the Peacock Room, which he had installed in his Detroit home. It was subsequently installed in the Freer Gallery of Art, where it has captivated countless visitors who have come to see this famous, if not infamous, artwork.
Charles Lang Freer
Charles Lang Freer made his fortune in the railroad car manufacturing industry in the mid- to late nineteenth century. His interest in the Aesthetic movement helped to 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, and artifacts from the ancient Near East.
Freer spent several years researching museums to determine the best design for his art gallery. He eventually decided on a modified version of an Italian renaissance palazzo. In fact, 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 piece of hotel stationery. An Italianate structure with a porticoed courtyard would reflect his ideas about art and aesthetics, including scale, proportion, harmony, and repose. When the building opened to the public and until the 1970s, live peacocks roamed the courtyard, creating, in effect, a living peacock room to rival Whistler’s painted masterpiece.