The year 2023 marked the 100th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art. The Freer and the Sackler Gallery now form the National Museum of Asian Art, containing art from East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Islamic World and ancient Egypt as well as important collections of American art.

The National Museum of Asian Art has over 45,000 objects from the Neolithic to the art of our time. The museum is located in National Mall in Washington, D.C. and charges no admission fee.

Charles Lang Freer was a 19th century American industrialist, art collector and patron. With advice and input by the American artist James McNeil Whistler, Freer was inspired to collect Asian art.

Japonisme and Chinoiserie were all the rage in Western art circles. The discovery of Japanese woodblock prints by progressive French artists of the 19th century gave new impetus to the creative arts in Europe and America. Early modernism’s roots are Asian and later African. Western Orientalist ideas influenced artists from Manet and Van Gogh, to musicians and composers from Puccini and Ravel, to dance artists like Fokine and Nijinsky.

Elite Boston intellectuals and creatives, John Singer Sargent and Isabella Stewart Gardiner were heavily influenced by East Asian art and philosophy. Charles Lang Freer was no exception in following this trend. Freer embraced the idea that art history was “the story of the beautiful” and that his collection was about the “points of contact” between time and space, ancient and modern, East and West.

Global Lives of Objects consists of 33 essays, each considering a single object to interconnected global histories. Richly illustrated contributors include curators, scientists, scholars and museum staff. The essays shed light on lesser known or unpublished work and examines from a totally different perspective.

For example, one essay tracks the perambulations of a group of rare Islamic glass from medieval 13th century Egypt to the court of the Rasulids in Yemen, crossing the Indian Ocean to China, where it is published in a woodblock-printed catalogue.

The remarkable journey of these fragile objects continues in Europe and later to Washington, D.C., where they enter the Freer collection in 1923.

One of the many illustrations includes copies of original sales receipts that revleal how routinely high prices were. A sales receipt from 1957 shows that a Qian Xuan painting of pear blossoms is recorded at $30,000, a standing gilt bronze Tang dynasty bodhisattva at $8,000.

Today, a couple of extra zeroes would be added.

Charles Lang Freer was not the first Westerner to collect Asian art. Ancient Roman monarchs and nobles were drawn to rare silks and porcelains. European kings built pavilions and pagodas to house their collections of Chinese and Japanese porcelains. The Peacock Room, inside the National Museum of Asian Art, was designed to highlight the paintings of Whistler and display his porcelain collection.

Charles Freer’s gift to the nation was the first museum in the national capital. It was an important gift in 1923 and will continue to be in the next century. 

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