Opened in 1923, the Freer Gallery of Art was the first art museum of the Smithsonian Institution. It is named for Charles Lang Freer, who donated his collection of Asian and American art to the United States government in 1906. With the adjoining Sackler Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries comprise the nation’s premier collections and exhibits of Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Islamic art, as well as the largest research library in the United States related to these forms of art.
After a lucrative career in manufacturing and railroads, Charles
Lang Freer (1854-1919) of Detroit devoted his retirement to collecting art and
traveling. Though he began his art collection in the 1880s, he began actively
collecting upon his retirement in 1900, and by 1904, approached President
Theodore Roosevelt with the idea of donating his collection to the United
States government. Freer collected more than 9,000 pieces of art and manuscripts,
focusing on works from China, Japan, Egypt, India, and the Middle East. Freer
owned one of the largest collections of art by American artist James McNeill
Whistler, Asian-inspired works likely sparked Freer’s interest in Asian art.
Freer donated his private collection to the Smithsonian
Institution in 1906, with stipulations that the gallery could not loan the art to
other institutions nor receive loans from other institutions. He envisioned an
institution that was highly accessible to scholars and students of art. By
establishing a distinct art gallery outside the walls of the Smithsonian
Castle, the new Freer Gallery moved forward the Smithsonian’s broader vision of
creating more museums throughout the twentieth century.
The Italian Renaissance structure was constructed between
1916 and 1921, designed by American architect and landscape planner Charles A.
Platt. The Freer Gallery added another museum to the National Mall, joining the
Castle (1855), the Arts and Industries Building (1879), and the National Museum
of Natural History (1910). Its design also stood out from its neighboring
museums, which were built in either the Romanesque style (with red brick) or
the neoclassical style (with columnns and marble). Like the Natural History
Museum, the Freer Gallery’s interior incorporated rich limestone, marble, and
The Freer Gallery opened on May 9, 1923. Freer died in
1919 before his gallery opened, but his legacy lives on in his namesake museum.
Since its opening, the Freer Gallery has collected more than 22,000 objects
from Asia, the Middle East, India, and the Islamic world. In 1979, Congress
approved construction of three new structures and gardens near the Freer
Gallery, which would comprise a quadrangle behind the Smithsonian Castle. The
adjoining Sackler Gallery opened in 1987 as the Smithsonian’s second museum
dedicated to Asian art. Together, the Freer and Sackler Galleries are the
nation’s premier museums for Asian art.
One of the most famous works at the Freer Gallery is the
Peacock Room, built by architect Thomas Jeckyll and redesigned as a work of
decorative art by James McNeill Whistler. The room originated from the London
mansion of Frederick R. Leyland, a British shipping magnate, and served as his
dining room. It also displayed Leyland’s collection of Chinese porcelain and
one of Whistler’s original paintings. Whistler reimagined the room between 1876
and 1877, painting Jeckyll’s Asian-inspired design in blue-green hues and
accenting in metallic gold leaf. Though Leyland disliked the redesign, Freer
was so captivated by the space that he purchased it after Leyland’s death. The
room was disassembled and shipped to Freer’s Detroit home until it was permanently
installed in the Freer Gallery.