Head of a pharaoh
5th to 6th dynasty, ca. 2675–2130 BCE
Stone and copper
Whenever I visit the Freer Gallery of Art, I cannot help but think of the lone art collector who gifted all of his collection to the Smithsonian Institution along with the funds for the museum itself. Charles Lang Freer was born in 1854 in Kingston, NY and started from humble beginnings; he skipped out on graduating high school to become a clerk for a local business. With a stroke of luck, Freer was scouted by a railroad manager Frank J. Hecker who saw promise in young Freer and brought him along for a business venture that would ultimately make him a wealthy man. Around the middle of his life, Freer was diagnosed with neurasthenia, a condition that does not exist in the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders today, but at the time included symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, headache, neuralgia, and depressed mood. At the time, there was no medication available for his ailment, and he was advised to direct his attention away from the stressful business environment and focus on a more relaxing venture such as the arts, and so he did.
Freer began to build a relationship with and collect art from James McNeill Whistler, whose works comprise a large part of the museum. Eventually, Whistler, who was very interested in Asian art as an influence, directed Freer towards collecting art from the East. Soon, Freer had made numerous travels to China, Japan, and Korea, bringing art back with him to Detroit, and collected it in his very own house. He had become one of America’s leading collectors of Asian art; however he was a very private man and his collections were not regularly opened to the public. He had amassed one of the largest private collections in the nation at the time; he had compiled over 30,000 objects.
Later in his life, Freer decided to give his collection to the US Government; however this offer was not greeted with enthusiasm when he approached the Smithsonian. The director at the time, Samuel P. Langley, believed that the Smithsonian would be burdened with the upkeep of the artworks as well as the requirements for the building Freer specified, including the fact that only his artworks could be hung in the building, and only in a manner consistent with his wishes and with the artist. Freer decided to go around Langley and move straight to the source: Roosevelt. Freer commissioned a portrait of Roosevelt by artist Gari Melchers to help influence him to accept the offer, and along with Eleanor’s interest in the art, was able to persuade the president to mandate that the Smithsonian accept the offer under Freer’s terms. And there you have it: the famous Freer Gallery of Asian Art was born.
Although Charles Freer was primarily attracted to Eastern art, his travels to China, Japan, and the like eventually brought him to Egypt, where he realized that his collection was incomplete without art from the land of the pyramids. After two more visits to the African country, Freer’s acquisition of Egyptian art was flourishing and he continued to buy from dealers in New York, London, and Paris.
This winter, the Freer Museum of Asian art exhibited selected objects from Freer’s collection that highlight his fascination with Egyptian art. Featured in the museum are rare Bible manuscripts he acquired in Egypt that illustrate the early history of the Bibles with the Washington codex, the 3rd oldest parchment manuscript, in the peacock room. Also exhibited are a small collection of Egyptian artifacts that Freer had acquired. The artifacts showcase the beauty of Egyptian craftsmanship and are inspired by the Nile River which provided livelihood for the people who lived there. The precious objects also illustrate the fascinating and exotic nature of Charles Lang Freer’s life as they are a direct manifestation of his worldly travels.
For more information on the exhibit visit http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/the-nile-and-ancient-egypt.asp, and for information on the Freer Bibles go to http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/freer-bibles.asp.