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"Pretty Women: Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty" at the Freer Gallery

Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor, 202.633.0523
Rebecca Fahy, 202.633.0521
Public only: 202.633.1000
Exhibition dates: August 13, 2005–September 17, 2006

July 14, 2005

Why did lifelong bachelor and founder of the Freer Gallery of Art Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) surround himself with paintings of women and what female images did he collect? The answer lies in a new exhibition opening Aug. 13 at the Freer Gallery. "Pretty Women: Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty," featuring six oil paintings by American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), as well as 15 paintings by his fellow American artists, Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851–1938), Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849–1921) and Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925) closes on Sept. 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.

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.

Among the works on view are:
• Thayer's "Head," a painting of Thayer's neighbor Clara Adelaide May (1872–1946) and one of the first painting in Freer's ultimate collection of 15 Thayer works.
• Dewing's "The Carnation," which like many of the other paintings on view, originally hung in Freer's Detroit mansion. Painted in the style of a still life, the queenly female figure's neck emulates the long-stemmed carnation she holds. Despite her solemn appearance, the model, Julia Baird, was a lively, free spirit whose pranks Dewing recounted to Freer.
• Dewing's "Portrait of a Girl," which was inspired by Jan Vermeer and Gerard Ter Borch and departed from his earlier, looser technique.
• Whistler's "Venus," which had hung in the artist's Paris house and London studio and was inspired by the figure-revealing drapery of the "Elgin Marbles" from the Parthenon, Greece, which had been acquired by London's British Museum in the early 19th century.
• Whistler's "Arrangement in White and Black" picturing the artist's longtime model and mistress, Maud Franklin. An artist in her own right and mother of two of Whistler's children, Franklin was abandoned by Whistler in 1888 when he married the artist Beatrice Godwin, who was the widow of his friend, architect E.W. Godwin.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the exhibitions section of the galleries' website.

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