Thanks to a wealthy donor of varied passions, a single museum houses one of the world’s finest permanent collections of Asian art as well as the most comprehensive assemblage of the works of American artist James McNeill Whistler. This somewhat schizophrenic entity, which opened in 1923, was the first Smithsonian museum devoted to the fine arts.
The museum’s namesake, Charles Lang Freer, was a self-taught connoisseur, who started out in the 1880s collecting American art, specifically living American artists, including his friend, the British-based Whistler. It was Whistler’s affinity for Japanese and Chinese art that got Freer interested in collecting Asian art. (Galleries near the Peacock Room display other works by Whistler that clearly show the influence of Asian art and techniques on his own style.) Soon Freer’s Asian art collection outgrew his American art collection; today, of the gallery’s 25,000 objects spanning 6,000 years (from China, Japan, Korea, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Central Asia, and Egypt) only a small number—1,708, to be exact—consists of American works.
This Italian Renaissance–style building, unlike many of its Smithsonian sisters, is usually blessedly uncrowded, making it a wonderful place to escape D.C.’s throngs. Furthermore, the Freer is fresh off a nearly 2-year renovation that updated infrastructure, refurbished galleries, and definitely improved the visitor experience. The main galleries lie on one level and encircle a lovely, landscaped central courtyard. It’s possible to stroll unhurried through the skylit rooms, which hold an astonishingly wide array of wonders. Such as: fine jewelry from the Chinese Liangzhu culture (which flourished during the late Neolithic and Bronze ages—we’re talking 6,000 years ago); a 1760 Japanese handscroll depicting “One Hundred Old Men Gathering for a Drink Party”; 12th-century illuminated manuscripts of sacred texts created by Jain artists of western India; a monumental hammered-brass Iranian candlestick from the late 12th century; exquisite Japanese screens; a beautiful, turquoise-glazed jar from late-12th-century Syria; giant and forbidding-looking Japanese wooden figures that stood guard in the early 14th century outside the entrance to a temple near Osaka; and the Freer’s single permanent installation, Whistler’s famous (and drop-dead gorgeous) Harmony in Blue and Gold: the Peacock Room, conceived as a dining room for the London mansion of wealthy client F. R. Leyland.