By MARSHA MERCER
In a noisy, fast and often vulgar world, the Freer Gallery of Art on the National Mall is a refuge of quiet beauty.
Since it opened in 1923, the Italian Renaissance-style building with its lovely central courtyard and outstanding Asian and American art collections has invited visitors to slow down and look.
That’s just what industrialist Charles Lang Freer intended.
“The interior of this building shall be arranged with special regard for the convenience of students and others desirous of an opportunity for uninterrupted study,” he wrote in his letter offering his art to America. “No charge shall ever be made for admission.”
Freer’s vision was extraordinary, especially because he had to leave school at 14 to work in a cement factory. He made his fortune in railroad cars and became a collector and a connoisseur of Asian art.
When the Freer Gallery closed in January 2016 for nearly two years of renovations, I worried the urge to modernize might ruin its timeless elegance.
Happily, most of the $14 million in renovations were not visible when the Freer, and the Sackler Galley that adjoins it, reopened Oct. 14.
Such things as the heating, cooling and humidity control systems were replaced and the Freer’s auditorium updated for telecasting. Carpets were removed and floors returned to the original polished terrazzo. And, of course, there’s now an app.
The museum itself is a work of art “where we hope we’re encouraging slow looking,” Julian Raby, director of what’s now called the Freer/Sackler, told reporters earlier this month.
Not quite 400,000 people a year visit the Freer and fewer visit the Sackler, an underground trove of Asian art that opened in 1987. A visitor rarely feels jostled, though he or she may have to dodge selfie-takers in the Freer’s Peacock Room.
The lavishly painted and gilded room was once the London dining room of ship owner Frederick Leyland, who hired James McNeill Whistler to add a few decorative touches in 1876. Leyland then left town, thinking the work was nearly finished.
The artist painted the room to a fare-the-well, and the angry owner would pay only half the agreed-upon price. Whistler insisted on finishing the satirical mural on one wall -- a pair of fighting peacocks he called Art and Money that symbolized his rocky relationship with his patron.
Freer later bought the room and had it reassembled in his home in Detroit. At the museum, the Peacock Room looks as it did there, with Freer’s ceramics from China, Korea, Japan and the Muslim world on the shelves.
Freer wanted not just to show what he called the points of contact between art of the East and West but how they unite us in a universalist sense of beauty, Raby said.
“Art, in other words, as a vehicle for empathy.” he said.
Today we think of the Smithsonian and art as a natural combination, but when Freer offered thousands of art works to the Smithsonian in 1905, the Board of Regents balked. The Smithsonian was about science, not art.
A committee of regents, including inventor Alexander Graham Bell, took the train to Detroit to see Freer’s collection. Bell brought along his daughter, Daisy, an art student. She was studying with Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who later carved Mount Rushmore.
“The four regents are men of broad education, wide experience, and of unquestioned judgment, but what they do not know about art would fill many volumes,” Freer wrote a friend, according to “Alexander Graham Bell,” a biography by Edwin S. Grosvenor, Bell’s great-grandson, and Morgan Wesson.
Daisy helped convince her father Freer’s holdings were worth having. Then President Theodore Roosevelt intervened.
“It is impossible to speak in too high terms of the munificence shown by Mr. Freer in this offer,” Roosevelt wrote the board. “The offer is one of the most generous that ever has been made to this government, and the gift is literally beyond price.”
After a year, Bell made the motion that the regents accept Freer’s gift, and, fortunately for us, it passed unanimously. The Smithsonian would have its first art museum.
There’s never been a better time for slow looking, and the renovations have only enhanced the experience. See you at the Freer.
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.