Born in Kingston, New York, in 1854, Charles Lang Freer left school at age fourteen and eventually worked as a local railroad clerk. In 1880 he moved to Detroit. Michigan, where he made his fortune through corporate mergers in the railroad car manufacturing industry. He began to collect contemporary American art, most notably by James McNeill Whistler, in the early 1890s. He retired at age forty-five, devoting his remaining years to “active idleness”: traveling, acquiring art, and planning for this public museum in Washington, D.C.In this 1919 photo, by Alvin Langdon Coburn, Freer compares Whistler's Venus Rising from the Sea with a Syrian ceramic jug.
The Smithsonian accepted Freer's collections of American and Asian art in 1906. His gift encompassed the world's most comprehensive collection of works by Whistler, including the Peacock Room, as well as paintings by American artists Thomas Dewing, Dwight Tryon, and Abbott Thayer. His significant holdings of Asian art ranged from China and Japan to the Mediterranean.
Freer retained ownership of the art until he died in 1919. In the intervening years, his 1906 gift to the nation increased from approximately 2,500 objects to nearly 10,000. His bequest prohibited future additions to his “perfectly complete” American holdings. Over the decades the Asian collections have grown through gifts and purchases. Today they contain many of the finest examples of Asian art anywhere in the world. -- Freer Gallery
Venus, the Syrian jug, and the photograph are on display at the Freer.