“A gentler, nobler, purer soul never entered heaven if such a place exists. His art and his life are one!”
—Charles Lang Freer to his business partner, Frank Hecker, July 18, 1903, one day after Whistler’s death
The Freer|Sackler’s grand reopening on October 14 has prompted reflection upon the relationship between the Freer Gallery of Art’s founder, Charles Lang Freer, and his favorite American artist, James McNeill Whistler. Whistler and Freer were not the typical artist-patron duo. They were close friends who genuinely cared for each other, their relationship extending beyond their shared belief in Whistler’s artistic genius. Freer’s loyalty and respect for Whistler is displayed not only in his glowing comments and enthusiastic collecting, but through his actions in the final days of Whistler’s life and the time just after the artist’s death.
Whistler’s Final Days
Freer and Whistler met in 1890, but it was only in the last few years of the artist’s life that they spent a lot of time together, meeting throughout Europe and especially in London, Whistler’s adopted home. At the time, Whistler lived at 74 Cheyne Walk with his two sisters-in-law, Rosalind and Ethel; he had grown close to his late wife’s family following her death in 1896. Whistler made Rosalind his executrix and sole heir. She worked hard to care for him and, later, to preserve his art historical legacy.
Freer was also a source of support and friendship. Whistler was put on bed rest following a heart attack he had on a 1902 trip to Holland that he and Freer took together. In the aftermath of this incident, Freer was extremely attentive to Whistler’s health and full of praise for the artist:
“Of course, I must stand by the illness regardless of earlier plans. So in the future my movements will depend entirely upon his condition. He is very weak and still brave as a lion. A most extraordinary man!!”
—Freer to Hecker, June 27, 1902
Despite his high praise of Whistler and attentiveness to his condition, Freer was reluctant to recognize how seriously ill Whistler was in the spring of 1903, just months before his death. Freer even talked of sitting for an unfinished portrait that Whistler had begun the year before, when he was in better health:
“Shall you be in Chelsea after June 15th? and if you are in the mood would you be willing to resume work on my Portrait?”
—Freer to Whistler, March 30, 1903
By the summer of 1903, Freer was visiting Whistler daily, making a daily trek from his hotel in Grosvenor Square to Whistler’s home in Chelsea. Freer took his ailing friend on carriage rides and sometimes journeyed with him across the river to Battersea Park. The Thames was a fitting setting for Whistler’s final excursions, as the river and its landmarks were ever-present in his life and in his art.
If Freer ever failed to visit, Whistler would call upon him to make sure he would be coming again soon. Whistler sent a number of telegraphs to Freer at the end of his life, each expressing his desire to see his friend daily. Their correspondence illustrates how strong and sweet their friendship had become, intensified, no doubt, by an awareness of mortality. Their letters and telegrams are full of mutual respect and appreciation: an ideal artist-patron relationship. It is clear that Whistler cherished and relied on these visits from Freer and that Freer was always happy to come and see him.
On July 16, 1903, Freer and Whistler drove their carriage through St. James and Hyde parks. After the ride, Whistler seemed refreshed; he played dominoes with Ethel and Rosalind before dinner. The next day, Friday, July 17, Freer arrived to pick Whistler up for another ride when he learned that Whistler had collapsed from a fatal blood clot in the brain five minutes prior to his arrival.
After Whistler’s death, Freer worked closely with the artist’s family to make arrangements for the funeral. He even served as a pallbearer. The funeral procession began at Whistler’s house and progressed up the street to St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church, where the artist’s mother, Anna, had worshiped. Whistler was buried next to his wife, Beatrice, at Chiswick St. Nicholas, a churchyard about four miles away from Cheyne Walk.
Hundreds of people gathered to memorialize the artist who had become as well-known for his antagonistic feelings toward the British art establishment as he was for his enigmatic portraits and depictions of the Thames. The hordes of people created a spectacle that surely would have entertained Whistler, who delighted in publicity. The following are some highlights from the funeral photographs, now part of the Pennell-Whistler Collection at the Library of Congress.
The day after Whistler died, Freer had concluded a letter to Frank Hecker by noting: “Need I say that in all things of perfect refinement of beauty the greatest masters are now all gone—at least all known masters.” Freer not only understood Whistler’s pursuit of beauty in his artwork and in his life, but truly believed that Whistler’s art had achieved this “perfect refinement of beauty.”
Whistler was all-consumed by thoughts of his legacy in the later years of his life, and Freer’s assessment of him as the last known “greatest master” is one that Whistler surely would have embraced. Freer’s postscript to Whistler’s death was a fitting final tribute from patron to artist, and from one friend to another.
Stay tuned for part two of this exploration of Whistler’s neighborhood.