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Charles Lang Freer (February 25, 1854 – October 25, 1919) was an American railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit, Michigan, who gave to the United States his art collections and funds for a building to house them. The Freer Gallery of Art founded by him is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Freer was born in Kingston, New York, in 1854 or 1856. As a teen, rather than finish high school, he went to work as a business clerk for a business. There, he was noticed by Frank J. Hecker, the manager of a local railroad, who hired Freer as a bookkeeper. In the 1870s, a group of investors from Detroit decided to build a rail line in Logansport, Indiana; they hired Hecker to manage the project. Hecker brought the younger Freer along.
Although the project was eventually merged out of existence, the investors were happy with Hecker and Freer, and invited the two to Detroit. In 1885, using their own capital and that of investors, Hecker and Freer formed the Peninsular Car Company to build rail cars. The investment made both wealthy, as Peninsular became Detroit's second largest car manufacturer, merging to become the Michigan-Peninsular Car Company in 1892. At the time, Michigan-Peninsular Car was Michigan's largest manufacturer. It merged again into American Car and Foundry in 1899.
In the later part of the 19th century, Freer was diagnosed with neurasthenia, the treatment for which was to concentrate on less stressful activities than business. Freer chose to begin an art collection, and by 1886 began collecting American masters, including a number of impressionist painters.
Early on, Freer met and began collecting the works of James Whistler, eventually becoming perhaps the most important collector of Whistler's work. He collected works by a number of Nineteenth Century American masters, including paintings by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Childe Hassam, and John Twachtman. He began purchasing paintings from Europe, but his artistic advisors (notably Whistler) suggested Freer concentrate on collecting Asian art.
In 1890 Freer contracted with Wilson Eyre to design a home in Detroit. The house (now on the National Register of Historic Places), on Ferry Street next door to Hecker's home, was completed in 1892. Later additions above the stable included space for an art gallery. In 1903, the year of Whistler's death, the Peacock Room was carefully removed from Frederick Leyland's home at 49 Princess Gate, London, and offered for sale at Orbach's gallery in Bond Street. Freer bought the room in 1904 and had Eyre design another room in the carriage house in which to install it.
In 1899, Freer began to disengage from the rail car business, selling his stocks and collecting art over the next 20 years until his death. He traveled several times to Asia, specifically Japan, Korea, and China, purchasing the best art he could find. Freer amassed what may have been the largest private art collection in the country, including over 30,000 pieces.
Early in the 20th century, Freer decided he should donate his art collection to the public, to be housed in Washington, D.C. Freer was friends with James McMillan, a US Senator and owner of the Michigan Car Company that had merged with Hecker and Freer's Peninsular Car Company. McMillan championed the idea of a beautiful capital city, and Freer approached the Smithsonian Institution to propose building a Washington art gallery for his collection.
The then-director of the Smithsonian, Samuel P. Langley, turned down the idea, perhaps afraid of the cost of upkeep of such a bequest. Freer persevered, contacting President Theodore Roosevelt (and commissioning Gari Melchers to paint a portrait of Roosevelt), and later his wife Edith. Edith prevailed on Roosevelt to back the project, and Roosevelt essentially directed the Smithsonian to accept Freer's gift.
In 1916, construction began on what is now known as the Freer Gallery in Washington. The building cost one million dollars, all of which was paid by Freer. Completion was delayed by World War I and the gallery was not opened until 1923.
Freer died in 1919 while staying at the Gotham Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, New York City of what was described as a stroke of apoplexy. He left the bulk of his art collection, more than 5000 objects, to the federal government; it is now housed in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution. Freer had no wife or children.
Freer is famous not only for having been an industrialist and art collector, but also an avid writer. His personal communications (letters and telegrams) between himself and Whistler have been published and are legendary in the art community. He also shared decades-long communications between himself and other important American art collectors and patrons.
A few of these early patrons went on to establish collections similar in importance (if not necessarily volume) to that of Freer. See: The Phillips Collection, The Vess Collection, The Roosevelt Collection, and others.