Portrait of Charles Lang Freer by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1909. Charles Lang Freer Papers. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of the estate of Charles Lang Freer. FSA A.01 12.01.2, Box 257.

This Day in Freer History: January 3, 1905

I am confident that quality should be the standard. . . .

A collector’s guiding principle

More than a century ago, on January 3, 1905, collector and museum-founder-to-be Charles Lang Freer shared a simple yet pithy thought about quality over quantity, defining quality as a primary criterion for collecting art.

On a cold Tuesday in Detroit, Freer wrote to Ernest Fenollosa, his unofficial teacher, respected advisor, and fellow collector. In his letter, Freer opened up to this formidable friend, expressing the aspirations he had for his Asian art collection, which was still growing at the time.

“I feel there is a fair hope of eventually making it fully equal, in an artistic way, to the Boston Museum’s collection, but I do not care to have it so bulky. I am confident that quality should be the standard, and I know you agree with me in this.”

In choosing the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, as the standard against which to build his collection, especially that of Japanese art, Freer showed both ambition—as the Boston museum collection was exceptionally strong, not in the least due to Fenollosa’s contributions—and awareness of the position his collection could occupy in the United States.

Black and white photo of four men in suits standing in a wooded area.
Ernest Fenollosa (third from left) with fellow collectors Edward S. Morse, Okakura Kakuzo, and William S. Bigelow, all of whom became curators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image in public domain.

As Fenollosa later admitted, Freer’s holdings of Japanese art had notable omissions, such as woodblock prints, which were then the most popular form of Japanese art in the Western world. Freer chose instead to concentrate on acquiring paintings and ceramics. So, encyclopedic was not how Freer envisioned his collection. Instead, he acquired objects that he deemed to be of “quality.”

For Freer and his fellow connoisseurs, quality was a central tenet at the intersection of knowledge and a quasi-mystical encounter with the art object. The connoisseur’s approach entailed a subjective dimension within an otherwise formal method of discerning value.

Of course, Freer’s and Fenollosa’s respective understandings of Asian art were conditioned by the (by-and-large limited) knowledge of the time. Moreover, perhaps more than a connoisseur, Fenollosa was a poet. It is hard to separate his poetry from his analysis of culture and society, but it is safe to say he understood art in a poetic way. In that, Fenollosa was the ideal participant in Freer’s quest for beauty—that is, for art’s ineffable ability to delight and elevate the spirit.

Two people in profile looking into a glass case with four round objects inside.
Visitors at the Freer Gallery of Art

All considered, Freer’s “standard” of “quality,” although rooted in the problematic paradigms of his time, implied a sense of optimism about the value of the personal contact with art. After all, the Freer Gallery of Art came to be, in large part, because of a collector’s desire to share beauty with others. The letter that Freer wrote 115 years ago today was part and parcel of his efforts to envision his collection as a public museum. That foresight became a reality when the Smithsonian accepted Freer’s gift to the nation in 1906.

Today, such belief in the value of the personal encounter with art has remained unchanged. Also unchanged is the Freer Gallery’s commitment to the pursuit of quality, however diversely interpreted—a pursuit that is, in the realm of art, both challenging and rewarding.

Sonia C. Coman-Ernstoff

Sonia Coman-Ernstoff is the Audience Engagement Strategist at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. Sonia has a B.A. from Harvard University, a Ph.D. in art history from Columbia University, where she wrote a dissertation on Japonisme, and wide-ranging experience in strategic planning. Sonia is the author of peer-reviewed papers and book chapters on the history of collecting and identity formation in the creative industries.

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