Who has “the power to see beauty”? How much do you need to know to appreciate a work of art from another culture or historical era? Our museum founder Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) asked himself these fundamental questions as he prepared to transfer his personal collection of Asian antiquities and American tonalist paintings to a new public museum on the National Mall.
Even though Freer left school after the eighth grade, he became a wealthy industrialist and world traveler. He had easy access to scholars, critics, and sophisticated advisors and appreciated “expert opinions.” Though he was never concerned with specific social, economic, and political circumstances affecting artistic production, he was keenly interested in how chronology, authenticity, quality, and cross-cultural interchange affected stylistic developments over the centuries.
Yet, Freer never renounced his conviction that a direct, emotional response was the highest form of aesthetic pleasure—and the most democratic, available to anyone willing to take the time to look closely. He believed quiet contemplation and intelligent (though often ahistorical and unexpected) comparisons of works of art would “induce concentration” and give all visitors “the power to see beauty.”