Museum  March 1, 2018  Martha Steger

9 Must-See Things at the Freer Gallery of Art

Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

The Northeast Corner of the Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art

The Freer Gallery of Art’s reopening in mid-October 2017 following 18-months’ refurbishment, called attention to the Smithsonian’s first art museum, opened in 1923. Together with its sister museum, the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which joined the Freer in 1987, their ancient and modern Asian treasures have made connections between Asia, America and the rest of the world. Among the Freer’s primarily Asian collections is a noted one by American artist James McNeill Whistler, covered below, in #2.

The Freer Gallery of Art Courtyard at Night
Courtesy the Smithsonian

1. The Freer: Architecture & Interior Design 

Recent improvements to this Mannerist, or late Italian High Renaissance, building restored architectural purity by removing carpeting down to the terrazzo flooring beneath it. These highly reflective floors spread light from the skylights and courtyards, which have noteworthy rose-colored Tennessee marble. Unlike many Smithsonian museums with soaring ceilings, the Freer has an intimate feel; Lee Glazer, curator of American Art at the Freer since 2007, says its “homey scale” led to one description, upon its opening, as “a granite bungalow.”

The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

2.  The Peacock Room

Even without open windows, the Peacock Room's display of James McNeill Whistler's Harmony in Blue and Gold is something to behold -- but when Freer staff open the room's shutters on the third Thursday of each month, noon to 5:30 p.m., Whistler's extravagant details, colors, and textures glow with blue, green, and gold. Originally a drawing room in British shipping magnate's Frederick R. Leyland's home, it housed his blue-and-white porcelain as well as Whistler's painting Princess from the Land of Porcelain. After Leyland’s death, Freer acquired and installed the Peacock Room before the building opened in 1923. Until the 1970s, live peacocks roamed the courtyard, creating, in effect, a living peacock room complementing Whistler’s painted masterpiece.

Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

3. Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati

Considered the finest statue of its kind, this female figure – right hand raised as if holding a flower and standing on a pedestal, indicating its use in official processions – dates to about A. D. 1100. Some Hindu art experts regard her as the female deity representing the World Mother or Earth Goddess, a universal fountainhead of fertility referred to as Parvati (or in south India, Sivakami); but she may also be the posthumous statue of a deified queen. Whichever, the figure embodies the strength and potency and illustrates the fine bronze casting done in the principal seat of Chola power between the mid-9th and mid-14h centuries.

Dish with design of dragons and clouds
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

4. Dish with design of dragons and clouds

This porcelain dish, with its complex glazing and artisanal brush decorations, dates to the latter days of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A combination of cobalt and iron pigments and white porcelain slip forms this vibrant design of dragons chasing flaming pearls, ringed by tropical plants; the design adds a playful twist to the formal motifs produced at imperial workshops. A rare example of  “Zhangzhou ware”– the city in the southern Fujian province where it was kiln-fired – it also exemplifies the diverse wares exported to Japan and Southeast Asia, where this dish would have become an heirloom, later to be excavated at urban sites.

Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, Hokusai
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

5. Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, Hokusai

This intimate portrait of imposing Mount Fuji stands in contrast to the many other views of Fuji in the Freer’s collection. In ink-and-color on silk from the Japanese Edo period (1615-1868), its portrayal of a youth seated in a willow tree overhanging a rushing waterfall and playing a flute engages and charms the viewer. The subject of a common boy who has been fishing is typical of the interest of Hokusai – a prolific painter, print designer, and illustrator. The design is organized like a woodblock print pattern would be, but instead of depending on contour line for definition of form, the painting uses thin washes of color with little reliance on line.

Sheep and Goat Scroll
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

6.   Sheep and Goat Scroll

Zhao Mengfu was the preeminent painter and calligrapher of the early Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), and one of the most versatile and subtle artists in the Chinese tradition. Inscribed on the handscroll is the artist’s stated motivation in creating this painting: "I have painted horses before, but have never painted sheep [or goats]. So when [Emperor] Zhongxin requested a painting, I playfully drew these for him from life. Though I cannot get close to the ancient masters, I have managed somewhat to capture their essential spirit."

Ayyubid period Canteen
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

7. Ayyubid period Canteen

The large canteen, the only known example of its kind from the Islamic world, recalls the shape of ceramic pilgrim flasks. Combining different styles of calligraphy and decorative motifs in its inlaid silver decoration, the canteen is adorned with elaborate and intricate geometric designs, as well as animals and with Christian imagery. The focal point is a representation of the Virgin and Child, surrounded by scenes from the life of Christ and representations of saints and knights. The canteen might have been commissioned by a wealthy Christian as a special memento of his travels to the East – or by a Muslim patron, who was familiar and interested in Christian imagery.

Shapur plate
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

8. Shapur Plate

The interior of this silver and gilt plate from the late period (6th-7th century) of the Sasanians — who ruled the vast territory from Egypt to Central Asia from 224 CE until the Arab conquest in the 7th century — shows the king, believed to be Shapur II (reigned 309-79), on horseback hunting boar, lion, and antelope. Kings, who gave these plates as official gifts within and beyond the empire’s borders, controlled silver production in imperial workshops. About thirty of these plates have been found in Iran and neighboring countries.

Waves at Matsushima, by Tawaraya Sotatsu
Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

9. Waves at Matsushima

This pair of six-panel folding screens is among the most successful works by one of Japan’s most influential artists, Tawaraya Sōtatsu. Executed in ink, color, gold, and silver, they were held by a Zen temple, likely for its opening in the late 1620s. The scene depicted probably represents no particular geographic location – and Waves at Matsushima is an early 20th-century appellation – but the work invokes Japanese iconography related to the miraculous gifts of the sea and a return to safe harbor. The screens greatly influenced painters throughout the Edo period (1615-1868) and even into the 20th century.

The Freer Sackler is open every day from 10-5:30. Find out more at

About the Author

Martha Steger

Martha Steger is a Midlothian, Virginia–based freelance writer. She received the second-place award in the category of Arts & Entertainment in the National Federation of Press Women’s 2017 Communications Contest.

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