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13. Seeing Beauty: Light and Design at the Freer Gallery, ca.1923

Lee Glazer

© 2019 Lee Glazer, CC BY 4.0

When the Freer Gallery of Art, the first stand-alone art museum of the Smithsonian Institution, opened to the public in 1923, critics were nearly unanimous in their praise of its elegant design, contemplative aura, and abundant natural light.1 Housing a wide array of Asian antiquities and a narrow range of American art of the Aesthetic movement, the museum was envisioned by its founder, Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) as ‘a work of art in itself’ and a ‘very great ornament to Washington.’2 Freer believed that ‘proper conditions of light, environment, etc.’ were fundamental to aesthetic appreciation.3 He therefore included along with the donation of his collection funds for the construction of a museum building, and he took an active role in every aspect of its design and illumination. As he explained to Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley when they first began to negotiate the terms of Freer’s gift, ‘I regard my collections as constituting a harmonious whole.’ He continued, ‘My object in providing a building is to insure the protection of this unity and the exhibition of every object in the collections in a proper and attractive manner.’4

Fig. 13.1 Freer Gallery of Art, Installation view of Chinese Gallery, 1923. Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archive, Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image # SIA2015-000819.

A properly aesthetic setting was of particular importance to Freer, since at the time, Asian objects were generally displayed in the United States and Europe either as ethnographic artefacts or exotic bric-a-brac.5 By presenting Asian works alongside contemporary American paintings in a purpose-built space, Freer hoped to bequeath to posterity what the artist James McNeill Whistler, his aesthetic guide, had called a ‘story of the beautiful’ — a non-linear visual narrative configured by formal harmonies resonating across cultural and temporal boundaries.6 A 1909 portrait of the collector by Alvin Langdon Coburn represents this aestheticist ideal in concrete visual terms. In the photograph, staged in the viewing room of his Detroit home, Freer crouches on the floor, comparing the abraded, iridescent glaze of a twelfth-century Raqqa jar to the soft tones of Venus Rising from the Sea by Whistler. The image documents Freer’s discerning eye, testifying to his personal transformation from capitalist to connoisseur; it also functioned as a demonstration of the type of aesthetic encounter that Freer hoped to encourage at his still-notional museum. ‘For those with the power to see beauty,’ Freer maintained, ‘all works of art go together, whatever their period.’7

Fig. 13.2 Alvin Langdon Coburn, Charles Lang Freer comparing a thirteenth-century Raqqa ware jar with Whistler’s Venus Rising from the Sea, 1909. Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archive, Smithsonian Institution.

Freer’s assertion suggests that the story of the beautiful would not write itself: for objects on display to be fully appreciated, they must been seen by a particular type of viewer, one whose perceptual stance of total concentration (‘the power to see beauty’) required, or, perhaps, was constituted by, particular conditions (‘proper conditions of light, environment, etc.’). Indeed, Freer seemed to recognize that aesthetic vision — and the perceptual expertise and cultural power that went along with it — was coextensive with the emergence of the art museum as a new form of public institution. Although they hardly existed in the United States at the end of the Civil War, art museums proliferated in the Gilded Age, opening at the rate of one per year between 1875 and 1905. As literary critic Stephen Arata says, art museums generated ‘new modes of perception, providing as well the altered medium in which such perceptions are accomplished.’8 When Freer began to plan the transfer of his personal collection to a public institution, he understood that lighting and design were crucial elements in managing aesthetic experience. Tracing Freer’s ideas about lighting his collection from their domestic origins to their institutional manifestation allows us to see how he constructed a context in which the private and privileged ‘power to see beauty’ might be transferred to a new, public audience of museum visitors.

Before he became a public benefactor, Freer nurtured his aesthetic sensibilities at home, in a modest shingle-style structure that he built in the early 1890s as a retreat from the pressures of business and as a suitable environment for his growing art collection. He worked closely with artist friends and the architect, Wilson Eyre, to ensure an overall unity of design. Thomas Dewing and Dwight Tyron developed decorative ensembles of paintings, frames, wall treatments, and furnishings for adjoining ground-floor living rooms that included garden views, judiciously placed windows, and vine-shaped fixtures for diffused artificial light.

The technological innovations that so radically transformed the illumination of public and private space in the early to mid-nineteenth century had been largely accomplished by the time Freer began to collect and display art. Electric light was the norm in commercial art galleries and museums, even if its domestic use was limited to affluent homes like Freer’s. A Japanese journalist named Nomura Michi spent a week in Detroit in 1908, and she reported that in the evening Freer escorted her through the house, where ‘each picture was illuminated with electric light in order to look closely at it.’9 Later, when planning the museum, Freer stipulated bright, almost clinical lighting for back-of-house storage areas, in order to facilitate the ‘uninterrupted study of the objects.’10

Freer — and, later, his appointed surrogates John Lodge and Katherine Rhoades — believed that different contexts and different types of viewers required different approaches to lighting. Bright, unconcealed artificial light was associated with the objective, probing eye of the scholar. This type of lighting was appropriate for experts; it was not, however, conducive to purely aesthetic experience. Theatrical lighting and obvious special effects, meanwhile, were associated with the vulgar realm of commodity culture. In Freer’s perceptual schema, more subtle effects of lighting were required to bestow ‘charm’ and induce what Freer called ‘sympathy’ between the public and the collection.11

Even though artificial light had its place in Freer’s home and the museum, natural light took on special significance in his approach to illuminating his collection. Freer’s correspondence includes numerous accounts of days spent studying paintings and ceramics under changing daylight conditions. Nomura, for instance, recalled that Freer put a different object on the dining room table every day, where they could enjoy it in isolation from the rest of the collection and appreciate it anew at each meal.12 Freer’s colleague Charles Moore described participating in a similar ritual, noting Freer liked to ‘place his guests on the broad window seat’ in the front hall while the manservant brought out ‘paintings or pieces of bronze or pottery one by one and place[d] them’ on an empty chair before the visitor.13 Toward the end of Freer’s life, William Bixby, a business associate and fellow collector, recounted an especially memorable day looking at paintings in Detroit: ‘Seated in your home with a glass of Scotch,’ he wrote, ‘we saw your Whistler, the seminocturn [sic] perform its stunt of being five different pictures in twelve hours depending on light & shade.’14 Bixby’s description mirrored Freer’s own experience of the collection. He wrote to Dewing, Tryon, and Abbott Thayer of his delight in uncrating a new painting and carrying it from room to room, enjoying the way different qualities of light revealed ‘extremely subtle qualities’ of colour and texture.15

When Freer described this type of visual experience to Tryon, the painter replied, ‘If sensations felt in the production are again revealed to the spectator through the completed work… then I feel sure you will not soon exhaust it but will find it respond to many moods.’16 The aesthetic object, according to this assessment, is understood as an index of subjective visual pleasure, first experienced by the artist in making the paintings, then later by the appreciative beholder, who, Tryon suggests, does not simply ‘enjoy’ the paintings as static objects, but derives pleasure from a subjective and dynamic perceptual process that mirrors that of the artist, but that is experienced by each beholder as private and unique. Freer continuously reaffirmed his faith in this type of unmediated perceptual experience, stating: ‘The pure emotion of the observer should be his first sensation.’17 How to provide visitors with ‘ample opportunity to enjoy their emotional reactions’ and maintain ‘freshness of vision — simplicity of vision’ became a pressing concern in 1908 and 1909, when Freer first began to plan the museum in Washington.

According to one advisor, art historian Langdon Warner, Freer recognized that in a museum ‘there could be no intimate dining… and no nectar at one’s elbow’ to facilitate sympathy between the art and the viewer; he aspired to create ‘the ideal museum.’ Warner noted, ‘Plans were sketched and questions of cases and lighting, storage and cork floors and labels were threshed out.’18 To accommodate increasingly frequent requests by students, art critics, and Smithsonian functionaries to see the collection and to test out his theories of exhibition design and lighting, Freer added two formal display spaces to his home: first, in 1906, a picture gallery for Whistler oils that Freer described as ‘an informal large living room’ and where he posed for the portrait by Coburn.19 A few years later, he added a second, similarly proportioned viewing room, which served as a laboratory for exploring not only the arrangement and juxtaposition of objects, but gallery lighting and design as well. Both rooms were long and narrow and had leaded glass skylights as the principal means of illumination. Although Freer continued to share his collection with visitors ‘comfortably enthroned’ in his front hall or dining room, the new rooms became prototypes for the exhibition galleries that would be built in Washington several years later.20

As he began in earnest to plan the museum, Freer, always an enthusiastic traveller, ventured beyond Detroit, methodically researching picture galleries, museums, and libraries in the United States and abroad. He admired the severe elegance of neoclassical facades at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Archaeological Museum in Athens, but he was less interested in architectural style than ‘different methods of heating, ventilating, lighting… and other practical items.’21 On the whole, he was unimpressed with the grand public temples of art that he saw on a 1909 tour of European institutions. ‘The majority of museums are dungeon-like and mere tombs for the treasure they overshadow,’ he wrote to his business partner back in Detroit; ‘If the artists whose work is so shockingly treated have any influence with the devil, the souls of the architects are surely being well roasted below.’22 The buildings he believed worthy of emulation were those that subscribed to thoughtful methods of illumination and, often, incorporated views of enclosed gardens into their design. He admired the small picture galleries at the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin because of the abundant natural light from windows and skylights; he saved an illustrated guidebook to the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp and later used its moveable window design as a model for the second viewing room in Detroit.

Freer was also drawn to buildings with open-air courtyards, like those he had seen on his first tour of Italy in 1894, when he followed an itinerary from Charles Adams Platt’s illustrated book Italian Gardens. Freer returned to Italy at the turn of the century, when he lived in a villa in Capri that he owned with the Michigan attorney and classicist Thomas Spencer Jerome. In 1908, around the time he had begun researching museum architecture but before he had hired an architect, Freer sketched a preliminary building plan that included eight sky-lit galleries for the display of his American paintings. Natural top-lighting, along with an interior courtyard, continued to appear through countless iterations, eventually realised when Freer hired Charles Adams Platt in 1913.

Trained as a landscape painter before joining the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, Platt was best known for classically-inspired country houses and garden designs. He and Freer moved in the same social circles and shared an aestheticist belief in the universality of beauty.23 Freer claimed that he let Platt ‘boss’ him, and indeed, the collector’s failing health kept him from ever visiting Washington to see the construction in progress.24 Architect and client nevertheless shared a common sensibility, and Platt seems to have been happy to collaborate with Freer on all the details of the museum, just as Wilson Eyre had done on Freer’s house. Freer sent Platt reams of preliminary drawings and notes, and the ultimate design for the Freer Gallery, approved by the Smithsonian Regents in 1916, Freer’s prediction in 1912 that ‘the Italian Renaissance style of most simple lines may eventually be adopted.’25 Taking his inspiration from the work of Mannerist architect Michele Sanmicheli, Platt designed a single-story block with galleries on the first floor and a raised basement level for art storage, study rooms, and offices. An interior corridor overlooking an open-air courtyard, links eighteen windowless, top-lit galleries and the Peacock Room at the southeast corner. The floor plan was practical, but it also served an aesthetic function. The interior corridor eliminated foot-traffic through the galleries, ensuring that they would be quiet and free of distractions. Additionally, as visitors moved through the museum, they glimpsed the garden, which Freer and his contemporaries regarded as inherently restorative.

With its restrained decoration and chilly materials, the Freer Gallery lacks what Anne Higgonet has called ‘the calculated effects of domesticity’ characteristic of other museums based on private collections, such as the Gardner or the Frick.26 Even so, the intimate scale of the building and aspects of its design reflect the domestic origins of Freer’s collecting practice and his fundamentally private, subjective viewing habits. As Linda Merrill has noted, ‘Freer’s vision of the skylit rooms was probably founded in his new picture gallery in the house on Ferry Avenue, which was somewhat smaller than the galleries he proposed [for his museum], but identically proportioned.’27 The courtyard, according to contemporary critic Royal Cortissoz, ‘brought into the scheme precious elements of light, air, and color’ and ‘did away with the frigidity so characteristic of museums.’ The arrangement, he explained, facilitated concentration, and enhanced aesthetic pleasure: if the visitor ‘has been absorbed in Chinese pottery, for example, and wants to go off and restfully think about it, he need not glance on his way at Egyptian glass or American painting. He can give himself up to the mood if he wants.’28 If museum fatigue — a new-fangled and often-mentioned peril in an age of proliferating art museums — was the plague, the courtyard was the cure.

Among the books in Freer’s personal library was Benjamin Ives Gilman’s Museum Ideals of Purpose and Methods, which offered a physiological justification for Freer’s understanding of illumination and its effects on museum-goers. Gilman was an instructor in psychology at Clark University and a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (Freer chose another MFA curator, John Ellerton Lodge, as the Freer’s first director.) Museum Ideals brought together previously published essays on topics such as ‘Museum Fatigue’ and ‘Glare in Museum Galleries,’ which argued that most museums paid too much attention to the effect of light on objects, when the focus should be on how lighting affects the viewer. ‘In museums,’ Gilman wrote, ‘the psychological element is more than half the problem of lighting.’29 Diagrams accompanying Gilman’s essay illustrated how top-lighting often resulted in distracting glare. As a corrective, he proposed a device called a skiascope, collapsible blinders to shut out distractions, eliminate glare, and induce concentration on one thing at a time ‘under a moderate intensity of light.’30 The skiascope never caught on. Gilman admitted that he utilized it to bolster an argument that was largely theoretical and psychological. However, we can see the skiascope as a kind of extreme, literal version of Freer’s habit of viewing one work at a time, under perceptually favourable conditions.

When Freer had the director of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum send Platt a sketch of the picture galleries Freer had so admired on his 1909 tour, Platt emphasized that the quality of light — ’the height and direction, … the exact arrangement of the skylight… pitch of glass, and all that sort of thing’ — was more important than the mere quantity of illumination.31 In order to test Platt’s ideas, Freer paid to have a full-scale model of an exhibition gallery erected on the roof of the architect’s New York office, and he loaned objects from his collection for Platt to study. Platt maintained that ‘for light to fall at the proper angle, the distance from the skylight to the object displayed must not be too great,’ and he developed a plan of small, proportionally narrow top’lit galleries that reiterated the basic design of Freer’s viewing rooms in Detroit.32 Freer did not live to see the museum completed, but he expressed satisfaction in Platt’s plan for controlled natural illumination: ‘a liberal amount of glass’ combined with ‘practicable appliances’ to ‘diffuse and direct light.’33

With the exception of the Peacock Room, which includes three French windows, all of the exhibition spaces in the Freer Gallery are windowless, with a system of double-paned attic skylights and sandblasted gallery glass. In the early years, visible artificial light fixtures were limited to non-gallery spaces. Blue and white incandescent bulbs and reflectors from the Frink Company (whose ads touted the fixtures’ technical sophistication and aesthetic discretion) were installed in the attic skylights, where they were invisible from the galleries. The lights would have been intensely bright, all the same, and so they were probably only used when the days were short or unusually gloomy. A building report submitted before the museum opened noted that ‘Little artificial light will ever be needed but whatever is used will come through especially imported glass.’34

In order to maintain the sense of an unmediated aesthetic encounter, it was important to minimize the lighting apparatus. A rail was installed all the way around the attic, from which an electric car and a man with a vacuum cleaner could ‘keep all the glass in spotless condition.’35 Ventilighters, expensive trademarked shades made of steel and bronze frames supporting narrow strips of fabric and available in a variety of colours, provided modulation and diffusion.36 A minor crisis erupted in 1921, when Platt hung khaki-coloured Ventilighters in the Whistler galleries. They imparted a ‘bilious’ tone, according to Katherine Rhoades, who had been Freer’s assistant in his final years and oversaw the installation of the galleries between 1920 and 1923. ‘I felt as though I had suddenly put on a pair of yellow spectacles,’ she told Lodge.37 Platt defended his decision by invoking Whistler’s use of yellow-toned walls at his infamous one-man exhibitions of the 1880s. Whistler had devised the décor and lighting to complement the art, but his orchestration of a total environment was also a marketing ploy. Platt’s allusion to Whistlerian showmanship seems to have unsettled Lodge as much as the intrusive colour of the shades. He told Rhoades, ‘Light-vanes and awnings reveal…a situation which has elements of comedy…but also of hopeless tragedy… There will be no more costly experiments.’38

Lodge was unhappy with the theatricality of the yellow lighting because it suggested that the power to see beauty was not, in fact, an independent faculty, but was something susceptible to manipulation, a trick of trade to be avoided by a serious art museum. ‘The first point in lighting a picture gallery is to carefully select the lamp which gives the whitest light…and to conceal the lamps themselves from view,’ declared one trade journal; ‘The actual source of the light should be invisible.’39 Lodge told Rhoades, ‘The stimulus is supposed to come from the works of art shown’ rather than from decoration or lighting.40

The fact that ‘all the galleries are adopting yellow in some form as a setting for their exhibitions’ only increased Lodge’s resolve ‘to adopt neither’ in the Freer gallery.41 The yellow shades probably were an infelicitous choice. Yet, Lodge’s commitment to the illusion of unmediated aesthetic experience and ‘natural’ lighting — and his extreme, almost violent, aversion to contrived or vaguely theatrical effects — had a nasty subtext. ‘Objects can be most effectively exhibited in a specially devised environment,’ he acknowledged to Rhoades, ‘for I have many times fallen an unwilling victim to shadow boxes, special effects of lighting and other devices dear to the heart of the Jew dealer.’42 The significance of Lodge’s snobbishness and bigotry is beyond the scope of this chapter — but it is a topic that demands further study, especially now with the museum community finally confronting the persistence of white male privilege in museum leadership, and a lack of diversity among museum audiences. In the more limited context of this essay, we can parse Lodge’s remarks as a sign of anxiety about taking aesthetic experience into the public realm, an anxiety that Freer had hoped to quell through obsessive attention to building design and lighting. Those very obsessions, however, affirmed that ‘the power to see beauty’ was contingent on a variety of technological, psychological and sociological factors. In the realm of private connoisseurship and collecting, those factors include wealth, mobility, and access to experts; in the realm of the public museum, experiential conditions calculated to make the power to see beauty available to all. Freer, Platt, Lodge — and the subsequent generations of directors and curators — are all every bit as much ‘managers of consciousness,’ to borrow Hans Haacke’s phrase, as the shop window dressers or commercial art dealers that Lodge denigrated.43 Even today, critics and the public remark on perfection of the museum’s lighting, but its history suggests that the Freer Gallery embodied, like most museums, what Daniel Sherman has termed ‘the imperfections as well as the highest aspirations of its creators.’44

1 See, for instance, Gertrude Richardson Brigham, ‘Freer Collection Viewed in Private’, Washington Post, 2 May 1923; Royal Cortissoz, ‘The Freer Gallery’, New York Tribune, 6 May 1923; ‘The New Freer Gallery as a Test of Taste’, Literary Digest, 2 June 1923, 32–33; Harvey M. Watts, ‘Opening of the Freer Gallery of Art’, Art and Archaeology 15.6 (1923), 271–77.

2 Charles Moore to Theodore Roosevelt, 1 November 1905. All correspondence is from the Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (hereafter CLF Papers).

3 ‘Extracts from Mr. Freer’s Paper Read at Trustee Meeting April 14, 1914’, Clyde H. Burroughs Records, Detroit Institute of Arts Archives.

4 Charles Lang Freer to Samuel P. Langley, 18 January 1905.

5 See Steven Conn, ‘Where Is the East: Asian Objects in American Museums, from Nathan Dunn to Charles Freer’, Winterthur Portfolio 35.2/3 (2000), 168–73.

6 In Mr Whistler’s ‘Ten O’Clock’ (London: Chatto and Windus, 1888), p. 19,, the artist proclaimed, ‘The story of the beautiful is already complete — hewn in the marbles of the Parthenon, and broidered, with the birds, upon the fan of Hokusai.’

7 Quoted in Charles Moore, Memoirs, p. 280, Container 21, Charles Moore Papers, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

8 Stephen D. Arata, ‘Object Lessons: Reading the Museum in The Golden Bowl’, in Alison Booth (ed.), Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), pp. 199–229 (pp. 202; 200–01).

9 Nomura Michi, Sekai isshū nikki [A Trip around the World] (Tokyo: privately published, 1908), p. 68. I am grateful to Takako Sarai of the Freer and Sackler for her translation.

10 Helen W. Henderson, ‘The Freer Collection’, in her The Art Treasures of Washington (Boston: L.C. Page & Co., 1913), pp. 229–51 (p. 242),

11 For examples of Freer’s invocation of ‘charm’ and ‘sympathy’ in the context of the museum experience, see ‘Extracts from Mr. Freer’s Paper’ (Detroit) and ‘Notes by Mr. Freer’, undated autograph fragment, CLF Papers.

12 Nomura, Sekai isshū nikki, p. 77.

13 Moore, Memoirs, p. 284.

14 William Bixby to Freer, 5 May 1919.

15 Freer to Dwight Tryon, 21 March 1898.

16 Tryon to Freer, 26 March 1898.

17 ‘Notes by Mr. Freer.’

18 Langdon Warner, ‘The Freer Gift of Eastern Art to America’, Asia, 23 August 1923, 593–94.

19 Freer to Wilson Eyre, 30 December 1902.

20 Annie Nathan Meyer, ‘Charles L. Freer, Art Collector’, New York Evening Post, 29 September 1919.

21 Freer to Abbott Thayer, 12 August 1912.

22 Freer to Frank Hecker, 8 July 1909.

23 See Keith N. Morgan, ‘The Patronage Matrix: Charles A. Platt, Architect, Charles L. Freer, Client’, Winterthur Portfolio 17.2–3 (1982), 121–34.

24 Quoted in Linda Merrill, ‘The Washington Building’, in Thomas Lawton and Linda Merrill, Freer: A Legacy of Art (Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, 1993), pp. 235–53 (p. 251).

25 Freer to Thayer, 15 October 1912.

26 Anne Higgonet, ‘Museum Sight’, in Andrew McClellan (ed.), Art and Its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 133–48 (p. 136).

27 Merrill, ‘The Washington Building’, p. 238.

28 Royal Cortissoz, ‘The Freer Gallery,’ New York Tribune, 6 May 1923.

29 Benjamin Ives Gilman, Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923; 1st ed. Cambridge: Printed by order of the trustees of the Museum at the Riverside Press, 1918,, p. 163.

30 Ibid., pp. 238–48.

31 Platt to Freer, 4 August 1913.

32 Platt to Freer, 14 December 1917.

33 Freer to Platt, 17 December 1917.

34 H. P. Caemmerer, ‘The Freer Gallery of Art’ (Washington, D.C.), enclosed in letter from Charles Walcott to H. P, Caemmerer, 24 August 1920, CLF Papers.

35 Ibid.

36 See ‘The Ventilighter’, American Architect 116, 17 September 1919.

37 Katherine Rhoades to John Lodge, 18 May 1921.

38 Lodge to Rhoades, 20 May 1921.

39 ‘Electric Lighting for Picture Galleries’, The Telegraphic Journal and Electric Review 13.93 (7 July 1883), 2.

40 Lodge to Rhoades, 13 April 1921.

41 Lodge to Rhoades, 25 May 1921.

42 Lodge to Rhoades, 26 March 1921.

43 See Hans Haacke, ‘Museums: Managers of Consciousness’, in Matthias Flügge and Robert Fleck (eds.), Hans Haacke: For Real: Works 1959–2006 (Düsseldorf: Richter, 2006), pp. 271–81.

44 Daniel Sherman, Worthy Monuments: Art Museums and the Politics of Culture in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 238.