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Pretty Women: Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty

August 13, 2005 - September 17, 2006


(above: Abbott Handerson Thayer, American, 1849-1921, Head, 1888-1889, oil on canvas, 30 x 20 1/8 inches. Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1890.4a)


Why did lifelong bachelor and founder of the Freer Gallery of Art Charles Lang Freer (1854­1919) surround himself with paintings of women and what female images did he collect? The answer lies in a new exhibition opening August 13, 2005 at the Freer Gallery. Pretty Women: Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty, featuring approximately 38 oil paintings by American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834­1903), as well as oils paintings by his fellow American artists, Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851­1938) and Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849­1921), closes on September 17, 2006. Many of the paintings are mounted in frames designed by the celebrated architect Stanford White. The Whistler works are installed in frames designed by the artist. (right: James McNeill Whistler, American, 1834-1903, Variations in Flesh Colour and Green - The Balcony, 1864-1870; additions 1870-1879, oil on wood panel, 21 1/4 x 19 1/9 inches. Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1892.23a-b)

Freer left school at an early age, was a self-made millionaire and self-educated art connoisseur. Though he was the close friend in later life of Freer Gallery benefactress Agnes Meyer, the forthright, intellectual wife of Washington Post publisher and financier Eugene Meyer, Freer once said that the "modern American woman, with her fancies of independence, rights, wrongs, extravagances, dress and other diabolical tendencies, is startling all sensible people-both male and female, around the world." Freer was nevertheless drawn to female likenesses, which might have provided a comfortably distanced vision of feminine beauty.

Feminine beauty had become a symbol of American culture during the Gilded Age and was a common subject for artists in Freer's time, but each of the men whose works are on view had a different approach to their subject that had special appeal to Freer. Whistler's works, which often fused newly discovered Japanese imagery with Western themes, were ultimately arrangements in line and color. Dewing created self-described "presences" or "decorations" that evoked a particular sensibility. Thayer's female figures transmitted a classical monumentality that was compared by a contemporary to "the heroic dignity of the Roman matron legend." These oils, which sometimes echoed the old masters, provided an emotional link to the greatness of the past. For Freer, these images of the artist's models, mistresses and family -- many of whom he knew personally or whose life stories were familiar-were ultimately artistic expressions with their own inherent aesthetic value. (left: Thomas Wilmer Dewing, American, 1851-1938, After Sunset, 1892, oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 54 1/8 inches. Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1906.68a)

Among the works on view are:



(above: James McNeill Whistler, American, 1834-1903, Arrangement in White and Black, ca. 1876, oil on canvas, 75 3/8 x 35 3/4. Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.7a-b)

RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles:

and these essays by art historian Susan Hobbs in other publications:


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rev. 9/19/06

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