- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

The Freer Gallery of Art’s “Pretty Women: Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty” is a focused, fascinating study of the complexity and contradictions of millionaire gallery founder Charles Lang Freer as collector and personality, his attitude toward women, and the transitional times in which he lived.

These contradictions fed his early concentration on works by turn-of-the-20th-century American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler and Americans Abbott Handerson Thayer, Dwight William Tryon and Thomas Wilmer Dewing, the exhibit’s artists. Because Freer (1854-1919) is most famous for his Asian art holdings — he deeded his collection to the Smithsonian in 1906 — his earlier foray into buying work by these artists is all the more interesting.

Freer was attracted to Whistler because of the artist’s interest in Asian arts, and it was Whistler who ultimately led the collector to them. Freer also liked Thayer’s idealized women, Tryon’s evanescent landscapes, and Dewing’s strange and beautiful females.

“It was a problematic time for women and for Freer,” exhibit curator and former Freer Gallery curator of American art Susan A. Hobbs observes. “The movement towards women’s independence, often called that of the ‘new woman,’ had appeared and threatened him.”

Among the show’s most vibrant ‘new women’ is Whistler’s portrait of Maud Franklin, his longtime model, mistress and mother of his two daughters. She steps lightly forward in “Arrangement in White and Black” (c. 1876) at the show’s entry — beautiful, graceful and confident. The Spanish artist Diego Velazquez influenced Whistler at the time, and Whistler dressed her in a Velasquez-like long black gown.

The artist flirted with other styles, as well, in what Ms. Hobbs calls a “search for his own expression.” For instance, when influenced by Japanese wood block prints, he dressed Joanna Hiffernan, his redheaded mistress at the time, in a stunning purple Japanese kimono in “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen” (1864). He silhouetted young Japanese women against the Thames River in “Variations in Flesh Color and Green: The Balcony” (1864-1870).

Whistler combined the floating dresses of Greek women with the stronger linear patterning of Japanese women’s kimonos in his “Venus” (circa 1868). Aiming to illustrate the range of Whistler’s stylistic exploring, Ms. Hobbs has included several of his most intriguing works here. It’s regrettable, however, that there are no explanatory labels detailing the artist’s progress.

Whistler liked having women in his art and life, which helps explain why Freer amassed the world’s largest number of the artist’s works. Thayer’s classically derived female forms attracted Freer, as well. The collector admired women he considered virtuous and who reminded him of virgins — so it’s not surprising he paid $10,000 in 1893 for the artist’s idealized “A Virgin, 1893.”

However, Thayer’s paintings of strong-looking women — here one dressed in a Greek “chiton” or tunic and another one titled “Head” — are both real and ideal. They would pave the way for later portrayals of the “new woman.”

Freer’s love for Dewing’s psychologically charged women is evident in the exhibit’s first gallery. The collector bought and commissioned some 42 works by the artist for the shingle-style house he began building in 1890. Several are displayed here, including: “The Piano,” which shows Dewing’s fascination with introspective women; “The Blue Dress” (1892), which reveals Dewing’s love of Japanese empty spaces; and “After Sunset,” which expresses the artist’s penchant for painting ethereal women in silver-gilded and gold-stippled backgrounds.

While this is a handsome, thoughtful exhibit, Ms. Hobbs could have informed visitors about Freer’s humble origins. He was not always the fastidious collector seen here.

Freer was born into a poor Kingston, N.Y., family. The future collector had to go to work at age 14, becoming paymaster for a local railroad and quickly climbing the ladder when his employer moved first to Indiana, then Detroit.

It may have been his early struggles that turned him into a ruthless businessman. When hiring Polish immigrants to build railroad cars in the Detroit shop he co-owned with his former employer Frank J. Hecker, they paid them almost starvation wages. It didn’t take long, however for the exploiter to become the aesthete and venture into Asian art collecting.

Despite this failure to explain Freer’s transition, however, Ms. Hobbs had an original idea with “Pretty Women” and ran with it. She, and the Freer Gallery, are to be congratulated.

WHAT: “Pretty Women: Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty”

WHERE: Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive and 12th Street SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 17, 2006


PHONE: 202/633-4880

WEB ADDRESS: www.asia.si.edu

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