A tiny peek into the collection of Charles Lang Freer.

Let us begin with the formalities.  Who was Charles Lang Freer? Oh, just a boy who left school to work in a factory; become a wealthy Detroit industrialist and art collector; and the first American to bequeath his private collection to the Smithsonian. A collection so large that an entire museum was named for him, The Freer Gallery of Art.

Freer, as painted by his close friend and confidant, James McNeill Whistler.

Freer became enchanted with Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s brushwork and soon amassed what would become the world’s largest Hokusai collection with more than 2,000 pieces.

Who is Hokusai, you might be internally whispering? This famous work might help you out, though it is not part of Freer’s collection. The Great Wave of Kanagawa sits in that pretentious, overpriced, over-endowed stone temple on 5th Avenue in NYC known as “The Met.”  A museum with a $3B endowment should not be charging $30 for tickets.  In contrast, the Smithsonian appropriation is approximately $1B, taxpayer money well spent to offer these treasures to everyone for free.

Photo courtesy of the Internet

There is a travel-sized Hokusai wave within the Freer, though.

The Great Wave is also to be featured on the 2024 Japanese ¥1000 note. I was surprised to learn that it hadn’t already been featured..

Hokusai’s ability to combine his sense of detail with the natural world resulted in exquisite works that graced privacy screens so common in Japanese homes, too.

Hokusai was not alone in his field. A contemporary, Utagawa Hiroshige’s works, more highly romanticized were as equally sought after, including by Freer.  All things considered, I prefer Hokusai; I like the attention to detail.

Possibly inspired by the Tsukiji Fish Market in Edo (Tokyo). Though, meat of the Mangrove Horseshoe Crab (lower right) is poisonous. How do I know this trivia? Because once upon a time when I was a research scientist, testing for gram-negative bacteria in our sterile samples was performed using the lymph fluid of the horseshoe crab; the fluid gels in the presence of bacteria. Along the way I learned that horseshoe crabs, while cool to look at, are not edible.

Hokusai also dabbled in zodiac symbols a bit, in these paintings of a snake slithering around a colorful Jute bag; and the rats romping around the haystack, each created in their respective years.

There is so much more to delight in at the Freer than these few snaps I’ve shared. Each time I visit the focus is on one or two galleries; too much of a good thing can leave me art-ed out after a while. Nevertheless, I always make time for a peek of The Peacock Room.

Yes, Freer had an entire room moved from London, to Detroit, and then to Washington, D.C.

The room’s story begins with Frederick Leyland, a British shipping magnate. When his architect fell ill he hired James McNeill Whistler to complete the renovations of his dining. Because hiring a painter to complete renovations makes perfect sense.

Whistler set to work…and painted the leather-covered walls with the now famous peacock motif. Leyland was quite displeased and refused to pay Whistler. In frustration, Whistler continued to paint…and added a pair of fighting peacocks to one wall. Leyland left the room as it was; and upon his death Freer (possibly alerted by Whistler) purchased the room and had it shipped to his house in Detroit, establishing the room as a place to display the haul of Chinese porcelain he had obtained from travels to The Far East.

Freer included the room in his bequest to the Smithsonian; once again the room was dismantled and moved to its permanent home in the gallery that bears his name. Wealthy people do some crazy stuff, and I’m all the more cultured because of it. Thank you, Mr. Freer.