A Whistler Caprice at the Freer


James McNeil Whistler, Caprice in Purple & Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, oil on panel. (Freer Gallery, Washington DC, photo ©Liz Hager)

For those with art on their minds, one of Washington’s most welcomed amenities is its many free museums.  And yet, despite the crowds in town for the Inauguration, the Freer Gallery was inexplicably empty during the morning after the big event.  Could everyone have bolted for home so quickly? Whatever the reason, it was a lucky break for this visitor, who had rooms of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Islamic and American art mostly to herself.  

The gallery was founded by Charles Lang Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit, who gave to the people of the United States his collections, as well as the funds for a building to house them.  When the gallery opened to the public in 1923, it was the first Smithsonian museum for fine arts. 

The museum houses a sturdy collection of unique Islamic ceramics and Buddhist sculptures from India and China. In addition, the Cizhou ware from the Song Dynasty period is absolutely exquisite. (Chinese ceramicists perfected the use of a deep black glaze that looks stunning on the pristine white-fired clay.) But the Freer is perhaps best known today for is its ample collection of Whistlers; at nearly 1300 pieces, it must be the most extensive in the world. Further, on permanent display at the Freer is what must surely be Whistler’s most opulent and controversial work—“Peacock Room.”  Originally commissioned  by shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland as his London dining room, the entire room was acquired by Freer in 1904 and installed in the Gallery after his death in 1919. (You cannot imagine how luscious that deep turquoise is.)

The juxtaposition of Asian and American art at the Freer is due largely to James McNeil Whistler (1834–1903). Freer began collecting art in the 1880s. He met Whistler in 1890 in London, and Whistler actually persuaded him to collect Asian art.  By the time they met, the influence of Japanese prints and Chinese ceramics was well-established in the artist’s work. Thus, many of the works here carry the telltale signs of Asian influences, either through inclusion of accessories from Whistler’s own extensive collection of Asian art or as compositional principles gleaned from the Ukiyo-e prints. By the late 1860s Japanese prints were well known in London, although by that time Whistler had already amassed a significant array of imported Japanese textiles, fans, lacquer, screens, and woodblock prints, all purchased from a Paris shop on the Rue de Rivoli.  

In Caprice in Purple and Gold, Whistler’s mistress, Jo Hifferman is seen surrounded by exotic and expensive things, all arranged artfully to show off their (and her) beauty.  It is even possible to recognize prints from Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodcut series Sixty-Odd Famous Places of Japan.

Whistler began to design the frames for his pictures around 1865, and he was influenced in this endeavor in part by his Chelsea neighbor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Some saw this as part of his eccentricity; others applauded him for retaining total artistic control. The frame here is of Whistler’s own design; it displays Japanese kimono motifs along its rails and stiles. In its corners are paulownia (princesstree) leaves.

After 1870 Whistler abandoned his ladies in kimonos. However, the  stylistic influences on these earlier experiments did not disappear; they became more thoroughly assimilated into his major preoccupation of this decade—the Nocturnes

Wider Connections

Freer House Detroit

Freer & Whistler

Whistler’s portrait of Freer

More on the Peacock Room

One Response to “A Whistler Caprice at the Freer”

  1. Ex-soldier boy Says:

    Thanks for the post on the Freer Gallery and Whistler’s Caprice. While trying not to sound like an infomercial, the Freer Gallery and the Caprice changed my life. Truly.
    I had grown up in a blue-collar environment, and joined the military to see the world. I was 22-23 at the time and an Army medic stationed (TDY) at Walter Reed A.M.C. The other Neanderthals of my company that I hung out with were dragged, kicking and screaming, to the Freer. It was time for their monthly ‘dose of culture.’ (That was the price they paid to hang out with me….tolerate me, whatever).
    I found myself in front of the Caprice. What drew my eye was Ms. Hifferman’s red sash. What got to me was Whistler’s skill at capturing the form of the sash while utilizing such bold brush work. I was dumbstruck by his confidence. (Still am.) I couldn’t stop looking at the sash, the painting.
    My buddies began kicking up a little sand, telling me it was time to go. I complained that we had only been there 15 min. or so, and to give me 5 more.
    They told me I had been staring at the painting for 2 hours.
    I honestly thought it had only been a few minutes, but I had been lost on this world of color and form. It was a remarkable experience.
    Well, I bought a copy of the painting (poor copy- the reds were pale and lifeless) and hung it in my room. The sergeants were a little befuddled, having rarely seen that kind of imagery in a barracks. One of my buddies pulled me aside and said, “Anyone who draws like you do, and who can stare at a picture for that long needs to really reconsider his career.”
    A year after my discharge from the Army, I found myself pursuing a degree in art.
    I did manage to graduate; I’m in my forties, have a day job, family, etc. I still paint, and paint for the joy of it.
    I wouldn’t have had any of that joy if I hadn’t to gone to the Freer. It really did change my life.

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