Charles Lang Freer  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Charles Lang Freer (February 2, 1854 – October 25, 1919) was an American railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit, Michigan who gave to the United States his art collections and funds for a building to house them. The Freer Gallery of Art founded by him is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C..


Art Collection

In the latter part of the 19th century, Freer was diagnosed with neurasthenia, the treatment for which was to concentrate on less stressful activities than business.<ref name = "det1701"/> Freer chose to begin an art collection, and by 1886 began collecting American masters, including a number of impressionist painters.

Early on, Freer met and began collecting the works of James Whistler, eventually becoming perhaps the most important collector of Whistler's work. He collected works by a number of Nineteenth Century American masters, including paintings by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Childe Hassam, and John Twachtman. He began purchasing paintings from Europe, but his artistic advisors (notably Whistler) suggested Freer concentrate on collecting Asian art.

In 1890 Freer contracted with Wilson Eyre to design a home in Detroit. The house (now on the National Register of Historic Places), on Ferry Street next door to Hecker's home, was completed in 1892. Later additions included space an art gallery, added above the stable. In 1904, Frederick Leyland's widow sold Freer the Peacock Room, designed by James Whistler, and Freer had Eyre design another room in the carriage house in which to install it.

In 1899, Freer began to disengage from the rail car business, selling his stocks and collecting art over the next 20 years until his death. He traveled several times to Asia, specifically Japan, Korea and China, purchasing the best art he could find. Freer amassed what may have been the largest private art collection in the country, including over 30,000 pieces.

Freer Gallery of Art

Early in the 20th century, Freer decided he should donate his art collection to the public, to be housed in Washington DC. Freer was friends with James McMillan, a US Senator and owner of the Michigan Car Company that had merged with Hecker and Freer's Peninsular Car Company. McMillan championed the idea of a beautiful capitol city, and Freer approached the Smithsonian and proposed building a Washington art gallery for his collection.

The then-director of the Smithsonian, Samuel P. Langley, turned down the idea, perhaps afraid of the cost of upkeep of such a bequest. Freer persevered, contacting President Theodore Roosevelt (and commissioning Gari Melchers to paint a portrait of Roosevelt), and later his wife Edith. Edith prevailed on Roosevelt to back the project, and Roosevelt essentially directed the Smithsonian to accept Freer's gift.

In 1916, construction began on what is now known as the Freer Gallery in Washington. The building cost one million dollars, all of which was paid by Freer. Completion was delayed by World War I and the galley was not opened until 1923.

In 1903, the year of Whistler's death, the Peacock Room was carefully removed from Frederick Leyland's home at 49 Princess Gate, London and offered for sale at Orbach's gallery in Bond Street. It was bought the following year by Charles Lang Freer and installed in his home in Detroit, Michigan.


Freer died in 1919, leaving the bulk of his art collection to the federal government; it is now housed in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution. Freer had no wife or children.


Freer is famous not only for being an industrialist and art collector, but also an avid writer. His personal communications (letters and telegrams) between himself and Whistler have been published and are legendary in the art community. He also shared decades-long communications between himself and other important American art collectors and patrons.

A few of these early patrons went on to establish collections similar in importance (if not necessarily volume) to that of Freer. See: The Phillips Collection, The Vess Collection, The Roosevelt Collection, and others.

See also


  • With kindest regards: the correspondence of Charles Lang Freer and James McNeill Whistler, 1890-1903, Authors Charles Lang Freer, James McNeill Whistler, Editor Linda Merrill, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Charles Lang Freer" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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