Tucked in a corridor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, a small and exquisitely arranged display of ancient Egyptian art offers intriguing insights into early 20th century collecting — and the story behind one of the most underrated but spectacular museums on the Mall.
“A Collector’s Eye: Freer in Egypt” highlights the period when Charles Lang Freer, the American industrialist who donated his Asian art collection to the Smithsonian, explored the art market in Egypt.
The exhibition is part of the museum’s larger 100th anniversary celebration. In 1923, it became the Smithsonian’s first art museum on the National Mall. The Freer Gallery is famously home to thousands of incredible objects of Asian art, as well as a renowned collection of works by James McNeill Whistler. With the centennial, curator Antonietta Catanzariti said she “seized the opportunity to propose an exhibition that could highlight a collection that we actually don’t show that often.”
“Definitely a lot of people always hear about our museum for our Asian collection. But very few know that we have this small Egyptian collection,” Catanzariti told The Washington Diplomat. “So this was an opportunity to sort of celebrate Freer and his thinking and collecting practices, and his wide interest in the art of ancient Egypt.”
On display, there’s beads and glass fragments, pendants and tubular studs — and it’s fascinating to see the bits and pieces that make up the collection, and once populated the world.
This exhibition is particularly fascinating for people who are interested in the complex landscape of art collecting. “At the beginning, Freer was just collecting for his aesthetic eye, and then decided to donate it to the nation,” Catanzariti said.
“Yes, he was an industrialist, he was also a person who loved art, but it’s also a form of diplomacy, I like to think when you deal with art and collecting, especially in those years,” Catanzariti added. “He was reading about Egypt, he was informing himself, before he decided to travel to Egypt.”
Freer visited the country three times between 1906 and 1909. During this period, he collected an array of pieces, including amulets, beads, and a strikingly beautiful Byzantine jewelry set. The museum highlights this eclectic collection with care, offering visitors the opportunity to study everything from everyday items like jars to a tiny, memorable lapis lazuli lion amulet.
“Egyptian art was essential for him to understand the rest of his collection,” Catanzariti said.
Freer stopped collecting Egyptian antiquities after 1909 (the exhibition notes the troubles he had with the market there, namely that it was “too complicated to penetrate and was already flooded with fakes”) but the three-year burst of interest was significant.
In 1907, he called ancient Egyptian art “the greatest art in the world — greater than Greek, Chinese, or Japanese.”
This exhibition is stuffed with small treasures. Visitors can enjoy the details in mosaic glass featuring delicately rendered depictions of cows or theatrical masks, and get lost in a display case with dozens of glass fragments that range from scarabs to furniture inlays.
There’s also a good mix of art and science to be found here, with the exhibition explaining how Egyptians obtained blue pigments and how they made glass.
A stunning funerary mask from the New Kingdom made of sycamore wood is one of the standouts of the show. Freer purchased this from the Cairo dealer Maurice Nahman in 1909, and it stares out at the viewer with piercing eyes inlaid with glass.
And the Byzantine jewelry collection of earrings, armlets and medallions is worth the trip to the exhibition alone. Freer acquired these sight unseen, the exhibition notes, and the gallery should be thrilled he did. The brilliant gold pieces from Egypt in the Byzantine period are extraordinary.
In its small but mighty array of objects, “A Collector’s Eye: Freer in Egypt” gives visitors rare insight into what — and who — it takes to form a collection of art.