Charles Lang Freer acquired his first cache of Asian ceramics in 1892. That initial haul—a hodgepodge of nineteenth-century Japanese wares—contained few masterpieces, but it presaged an enduring obsession with ceramics that grew to include examples from the Islamic world as well as all of East Asia. Freer never aspired to amass an encyclopedic array of specimens: his ceramics collection developed as a combination of singular masterpieces and formally harmonious, transhistorical and transcultural groupings.
Renowned for a sharp eye and connoisseurial prowess, Freer nevertheless was far from prescient. Guided by a Gilded Age belief in a “universal art spirit,” Freer’s collecting was limited by the exigencies of the art market and a paucity of specialized knowledge. Even as he acquired ceramics from Japan, China, and the Islamic world that are among the best of their kind, Freer overlooked key areas of Asian ceramic production and overvalued or misattributed others. Curators Massumeh Farhad, Louise Cort, and Jan Stuart reflect on the legacy of Freer’s ceramics collection, putting the museum founder’s hits and misses into context.
This talk is part of the series The Freer Story, celebrating the reopening of the Freer Gallery of Art.
Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and the Ebrahimi Family Curator of Persian, Arab, and Turkish Art, joined the Freer|Sackler in 1995 as associate curator of Islamic art. She is a specialist in the arts of the book from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Iran.
Louise Cort, curator for ceramics, is interested in historical and contemporary ceramics in Japan and South and Southeast Asia, and the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu). She received the thirty-third Koyama Fujio Memorial Prize and the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar Award in 2012.
Jan Stuart, the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art, returned to the Freer|Sackler in 2014 after serving as Keeper of Asia at the British Museum for eight years. Her work focuses on decorative and court arts, as seen in The Last Empresses of China, an exhibition borrowing from the Palace Museum and cocurated with Daisy Wang (opening March 2019).