Swami Vivekananda with one hand cupping his face, his elbow rests on the back of chair on which he is seated sideways.

Swami Vivekananda, ca. 1893/Courtesy of the Vedanta Society of Northern California.

This Day in Freer History: September 27, 1893

A Transcendent Realm: Freer and Vivekananda

On September 27, 1893—127 years ago today—a visitor to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition could encounter two very different perspectives on India. The exotic India of the orientalist imagination was on offer at the East India Pavilion, with its “tall pagoda [surrounded by] numerous gods who seem to loll lazily about it like fakirs…”[1]

Interior of a building decorated to represent Indian culture, a tall pagoda at center surrounded by idols of Hindu statues, there are framed pictures, tapestries, and carpets, a few men are seated on the ground and a few more are on the second floor balcony
Interior of the East Indian Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893/Herman P. Chilson Collection of Western Americana, courtesy of the University of South Dakota Archives and Special Collections.

In contrast, a visitor at the fair’s Parliament of World Religions would hear the young Indian monk who had been the sensation of the conference. In rapturously received addresses, Swami Vivekananda spoke of a Hindu spiritual path called Vedanta that was both inherently rational and inherently universal.

Swami Vivekananda with one hand cupping his face, his elbow rests on the back of chair on which he is seated sideways.
Swami Vivekananda, ca. 1893/Courtesy of the Vedanta Society of Northern California.

Less than six months after the fair, the famously private Charles Lang Freer held not one but two receptions for Swami Vivekananda in his Detroit home, occasions on which the monk spoke of Indian spiritual values. What impact did those meetings have on Freer’s concept of art and his vision for a national collection of Asian art?

Photograph of Charles Lang Freer's house in Detroit, Michigan, circa 1892-1918
Charles Lang Freer’s home in Detroit, Michigan, 1892-1918/Charles Lang Freer Papers, FSA A.01, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Gift of the estate of Charles Lang Freer, FSA A.01 12.04.

Freer and Vivekananda both championed universal values that transcended East and West, but it is difficult to ascertain the impact of the sage’s words because their cultural worlds overlapped. Freer traveled in intellectual circles that drew on transcendentalist values, which were themselves colored by Vedanta philosophy.

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.
Swami Vivekananda seated on the ground at center of a group of people outdoors. The group is mix of men and women and youth.
In 1894 and 1895, Ernest Fenellosa attended Swami Vivekananda’s talks at the spiritual center Green Acre in Maine and in the “Cambridge Classes” in Boston. Pictured: Swami Vivekananda at Green Acre School, Eliot, Maine, ca. 1894/Collections of Eliot Baha’i Archives, courtesy of MaineMemory.net.

In these circles, collecting art and contemplating beauty were a means for developing a spiritual self. Freer’s library, which contained books on transcendentalism, Vedanta, and Yoga; his private reading courses on Buddhism and theosophy; and his subscription to the journal of the society founded by Vivekananda nourished Freer’s belief that properly experiencing art provided access to a transcendent realm. His strong personal bond with Ernest Fenellosa, an intellectual, aesthete, and Japanese specialist who was a devoted attendee of Vivekananda’s East Coast lectures, also reinforced this belief.

Seven months after Freer’s dinner parties for the young monk, the collector set off for a three-month trip across South Asia, during which he wrote to his business partner and friend Frank Hecker that he was “over [his] head in love with India.” Over Freer’s lifetime, Americans had few opportunities to collect Indian sculpture or painting, but his belief that Indian art should be a pillar of a national collection of Asian art was prescient. In a period during which Indian objects were usually classified as ethnographic or decorative, Freer positioned them as fine art, a vision that resonates far more strongly with Vivekananda’s message than with the sandalwood-scented exoticism of the Indian Teahouse.

Additional resource

“Freer and Swami Vivekananda: Detroit and India,” The Freer House, Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute, Wayne State University

[1] A period review cited in Kumar, Brinda. Of Networks and Narratives: Collecting Indian Art in America, 1907-1972. Unpublished Dissertation, Cornell University, 2015, p. 27.

Debra Diamond

Debra Diamond is curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Freer and Sackler.

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