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Quiet Canal; James McNeill Whistler (1804– 1903); United States; 1879-1880; etching and drypoint on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1887.25.

WASHINGTON, DC.- In 1887, businessman Charles Lang Freer acquired his first works by American artist James McNeill Whistler, a set of delicately rendered etchings known as the Second Venice Set. The result of a chance encounter, this single act led to Freer amassing one of the world’s finest collections of Asian and American art and later founding the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. Opened Oct. 18, the exhibition “Fine Impressions: Whistler, Freer, and Venice” tells the story for the first time of how Freer’s precipitous purchase catalyzed a shift in taste and came to define his subsequent career as a connoisseur and collector.

Up to that point, Freer had been uninterested in works by the expatriate American. “Why anyone in the world should make any fuss over Whistler as an artist” was, he said, beyond him. Viewing Mansfield’s collection changed Freer’s mind. As he later remarked to Mansfield, “My purchasing, I recall, began the day thereafter, and has continued ever since whenever opportunity has offered.”

Freer’s precipitous act marked the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership with Whistler. The mutually beneficial relationship between collector and artist eventually led to the founding of the Freer Gallery, today the world’s largest and finest repository of works by Whistler.

The Second Venice Set is well known within Whistler’s oeuvre. It has most frequently been exhibited to highlight changes in Whistler’s style and to underscore the popularity of Venice as a tourist destination and artistic subject. Fine Impressions, however, tells the story from Freer’s perspective: how his epiphany in Mansfield’s apartment and his acquisition of the Second Venice Set catalyzed a shift in taste and came to shape his legacy as a connoisseur and collector.

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Nocturne: Furnace; James McNeill Whistler (1804–1903); United States; 1879-1880; etching and drypoint on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1887.24