Fine Impressions: Whistler, Freer, and Venice

On a November day in 1887, museum founder Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) walked into a New York City art gallery and purchased the entire Second Venice Set, a suite of twenty-six etchings by the American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). Freer, an industrialist from Detroit, Michigan, had amassed a fortune manufacturing railroad cars. A burgeoning aesthete, he had been collecting prints by contemporary European artists for several years, but works by Whistler were not among his earliest acquisitions. Despite the artist’s rising reputation among American collectors, Freer was not impressed. “Why anyone in the world should make any fuss over Whistler as an artist” was beyond him.

Freer’s feelings changed suddenly when he was invited to the apartment of Howard Mansfield, a fellow collector, to inspect some especially “fine impressions” of Whistler’s etchings. Mansfield recalled Freer was “comfortably seated, with a large cigar, which he never lighted,” but as one portfolio after another of Whistler’s work was brought out, Freer leaped from his chair and paced around the room “uttering large adjectives.” “My purchasing began the day thereafter,” Freer later confided, “and has continued ever since whenever opportunity has offered.”

When Freer “discovered” the Venice etchings, he had never traveled to Italy. The sites and subjects of the prints were of little significance to him. Instead, he was enthralled by Whistler’s originality: the technical mastery and innovations of form that evoked light, atmosphere, texture, and color in the linear, monochromatic medium of printmaking. Hoping to purchase new works directly from the artist, Freer paid an unannounced call on Whistler during a business trip to London in 1890. Over the next thirteen years, the two men developed a close friendship, and Whistler helped Freer amass what the artist called “a fine collection of Whistlers—perhaps the collection.” Ultimately, that “fine collection of Whistlers” became part of a larger, cross-cultural collection of Asian and American art that Freer bequeathed to the Smithsonian in 1906.