The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Charles Lang Freer, 1856-1919

Nationality: American
Date of Birth: 1856
Place of Birth: Kingston, NY
Date of Death: 1919
Place of Death:


Charles Lang Freer was a Detroit industrialist, collector and founder of the Freer Gallery of Art. He was the son of Jacob R. Freer and Phoebe Jane Townsend. Freer never married.


Freer came from a humble background and rose by his own abilities and in 1880 he founded a Detroit company which produced heavy rolling stock for the railways in partnership with his former employer, Colonel Frank J. Hecker; this later became the Peninsular Car Works. In 1899 he masterminded the merger of thirteen firms to form the American Car and Foundry Company. He was able to retire from business the next year and devote himself entirely to the arts. He travelled extensively in Europe and in the Far East, and is known principally as a collector of Oriental Art. He first saw etchings by JW in the collection of Howard Mansfield in 1887 and bought his first Whistlers, A Set of twenty-six etchings of Venice, 1886 (the second 'Venice set') (K.196-216, 233-237). (excat 6), the next day. He seems to have met JW personally in March 1890, on his first visit to London, and became a valued friend and patron to the artist. Freer's rapport with JW comes over strongly in Portrait of Charles L. Freer (YMSM 550).

Freer's correspondence with JW is in the University of Glasgow, and JW's replies are in the Freer Gallery. His unique collection of JW's work in all media includes nearly 70 oil paintings and the most comprehensive collection of his prints ever assembled. It is rivalled only by the collection in the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow. He also bought works by other contemporary American artists, particularly Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Dwight William Tryon and Abbott Henderson Thayer. Freer intended that these contemporary works should hang in galleries beside his superb Oriental collection.

Although JW was one of the few artists not involved directly in the decoration of Freer's Detroit house, designed by Aesthetic movement architect Wilson Eyre in 1891, his influence was everywhere apparent. For example, Freer painted his dining room primrose yellow, inspired by visits to JW's home. Freer enjoyed an amiable friendship with the often irascible JW, and his frequent correspondence was often answered by Beatrix. In JW's last years, he encouraged Freer's collecting, writing 'that I wish you to have a fine collection of Whistlers!! - perhaps the collection' (#03196).

After JW's death, Freer continued to seek Whistlers like Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay (YMSM 76), which he bought in 1908 but had first admired fourteen years previously. In 1904, although initially reluctant, he bought Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (YMSM 178), which would become the single most famous work in his collection. Freer presented his collection to the State and left $1,000,000 for the building of a gallery to house it in Washington, DC.


Curry, David Park, James McNeill Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art, New York and London, 1984; Freer Gallery of Art, The Whistler Peacock Room, exhibition catalogue, Washington, 1972; Hobbs, Susan, Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., New York ?, 1981?; Lawton, Thomas, Freer: a Legacy of Art, Washington, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1993; Merrill, Linda, With Kindest Regards. The Correspondence of Charles Lang Freer and James McNeill Whistler, 1890-1903, Washington and London, 1995; Merrill, Linda, The Peacock Room. A Cultural Biography, New Haven and London, 1998; Pennell, Joseph, 'Greatest Collection of Whistlers: Charles Freer of Detroit, and His Gift to the Nation,' The New York Times Magazine, 6 May 1923, pp. 3 and 14.