Today is the birthday of Charles Lang Freer, born in Kingston NY, either in 1854 or 1856 – no one is sure.
He grew up to be a bookkeeper and did so well that his employer, Frank Hecker, took him on as a partner in business. They built railroad cars and got very rich. Sometime in his forties, Freer was diagnosed as neurasthenic, the Victorian version of chronic fatigue syndrome, and he was urged to avoid stress and stop working so hard.
He followed doctor’s orders and began to collect art, like almost every magnate of the time. But there was a big difference between Freer and other collectors – he had become friends with James McNeill Whistler and it was Whistler who guided his collecting. Whistler particularly urged Freer to collect Asian art. Freer’s collection eventually numbered more than 30,000 objects.
In 1904, when Frederick Leyland sold the Peacock Room – which Whistler had designed for Leyland (or rather in spite of Leyland) – Freer bought the entire room and had it installed in his house in Detroit. It is now at the Smithsonian, which recently completed a restoration of the room. You can see all of it there in three dimensions or online here.
The Smithsonian really didn’t want to take on Freer’s vast collection, but he got in touch with a friend – Pres. Theodore Roosevelt – who pretty much ordered them to accept it.
Freer paid a million dollars for his eponymous gallery, but died before it was finished. Delayed by WWI, the Freer Gallery finally opened in 1923, four years after his death.