Did you ever wish you could step into a painting? I feel that way each time I look at John Singer Sargent’s painting Breakfast in the Loggia. It hangs in the Freer in a hallway that leads to galleries of Indian and Islamic art, and it’s overshadowed by an imposing guardian figure from Japan. Most visitors walk right by it, never giving it a first, much less a second, glance. So why is a sunny Italian scene by one of the greatest American painters of the early twentieth century on view in the Freer?
It’s easy to forget that Charles Lang Freer was collecting the leading-edge American art of his time. Many of his American acquisitions look staid and old-fashioned to viewers today. Freer formed friendships with artists, including Abbott Handerson Thayer, Thomas Dewing, and of course, James McNeill Whistler. He acquired their art and commissioned them to create paintings for his home in Detroit, Michigan. A budding connoisseur, Freer learned from artists and honed his sense of aesthetics from their discussions and correspondence. Freer even bought their works, sometimes sight unseen, because he believed in their abilities and creativity.
Freer did not have the same close relationship with John Singer Sargent; I’m pretty sure the two never met. I think I would have liked the artist. I know I like the way he paints and how he fills shadows with an array of colors. A white wall isn’t really white. It’s blue and gray and pink. The “white” tablecloth is primarily slashes of shades of blue. When I look at Breakfast in the Loggia, I imagine myself wearing a big hat, leaning in with my elbows on the table as I eat outside and share a bit of gossip. Best of all, I can feel the warm Italian sun on my back. Ahhh!
Truth be told, this is my second-favorite work in the museums. First is the portrait of Elvis painted on velvet that hangs in the staff kitchen—but that’s a story for another time.