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Freer began his American collection at a crucial moment in the history of American art. From the colonial period until after the Civil War, American artists were primarily concerned with the accurate representation of things, places, people, and actions. They sought to capture in pencil or pigment what they believed to be objective truths about their world. In the 1870s, urban growth, the rapid expansion of industrial production, and the extension of railroads to the Pacific Ocean transformed the nation, creating new opportunities for a younger generation of more cosmopolitan artists. Unlike earlier American artists, many of these artists assumed that since all perception is grounded in the individual self, objective or "unmediated" knowledge is unobtainable; artists do not represent reality, but only their experience of it. As one leading American critic commented in 1880, "Whereas it used to be the main effort of American painters to imitate nature, it is the main effort of the new men to express feeling."William C. Brownell, "The Younger Painters of America," Scribner's Monthly 20 (May 1880), 7.

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Freer and his collection
Freer comparing Whistler's Venus Rising from the Sea (F1903.174) to an Islamic glazed ceramic pot (F1905.61)
Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn (American, 1882–1966)
Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art Archives
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art
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