Frederick Warren Freer (1849-1908)
By Margaret Bullock, Ph.D. © Illinois Historical Art Project
The diversity that characterizes the work of the Chicago artist, Frederick Warren Freer (1849-1908), reflects the rich mixture of native and European influences comprising the American art world during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Frederick Freer responded to this changeable environment by experimenting with a number of different styles, media and subjects in the course of his career. He played a particularly prominent role in the Chicago art world as an artist, teacher, exhibitor and juror. In the decades following his death, Freer’s role in Illinois art history was obscured by the tumultuous changes which took place in American art and culture. Since the late 1970s, however, there has been a steady revival of interest in the history and oeuvre of this versatile and once highly popular artist.
Freer was born on June 16, 1849 in Kennicott’s Grove, Illinois (now part of Chicago). His father, Joseph Warren Freer, was the son of Dutch settlers and his mother, Katherine Gatter Freer, was originally from Wurtemberg, Germany. Joseph Warren Freer was a distinguished Chicago physician who was appointed Chair of Physiology and Microscopic Anatomy at Rush Medical College in 1859and served as President of the College from 1872 to 1877. Two of his sons, Otto and Paul, later studied medicine at Rush Medical College; Otto became a laryngologist and Paul a chemist. Frederick was the oldest son and originally intended to study medicine as well. However, when he became partially deaf from a childhood illness he suffered at the age of fourteen, his parents began to encourage him to develop his drawing talent instead and he began studying art. Frederick’s sister, Cora, also trained as an artist.
As a child, Frederick Freer attended public schools in the Chicago area. It is not known what form of art training he received during these early years, but after his graduation from Central High School in 1867, the Freer family traveled to Europe so that Frederick and Cora could begin studying art at the Royal Academy in Munich. The rest of the family also lived in Munich, and made regular trips to other parts of Europe while Cora and Frederick were in training at the Academy. Joseph Freer returned to Chicago at regular intervals to teach at Rush Medical College].[9
Freer arrived in Munich during a period of rising prosperity at the Royal Academy, which was becoming a popular alternative to the art schools of Paris for Americans. Like the Parisian academies, the standard course of study at the Royal Academy followed a progression through increasingly difficult drawing and painting tasks. Students began with the Antique Class where they drew from anatomical casts and casts of ancient sculptures. They then graduated to the Life Class, in which they worked from live models, then proceeded to the Painting Technique Class and finally to the Composition Class, where they worked on finished paintings of their own design under the supervision of their chosen instructor. In true academic style, the curriculum focused on technical mastery but in contrast to the schools of Paris, it also emphasized a direct, powerful form of realism. Royal Academy students were taught to paint directly and rapidly, “preserving the movement of the brush and choice of modulating colors and values, visible in the finished work, as an element of additional interest.” Preferred subjects were portraits, genre scenes and rural landscapes. This was in contrast to the idealized historical and mythological scenes popular in the Parisian academies and salons.
Freer’s instructors at the Royal Academy included Alexander von Wagner (1838-1919), Alexander Straehuber (1814-1882) and Wilhelm von Diez (1839-1907). Diez was the instructor of the Painting Technique class and was one of the most influential teachers at the Academy. He encouraged the study and imitation of the Old Masters, particularly seventeenth-century Dutch painters. Freer’s palette reflected these teachings for many years after leaving Munich in a predominance of browns, grays and blacks. The hallmarks of the Dutch Old Masters are particularly noticeable in Freer’s portraits in which the dramatically lit faces of his figures contrast sharply with their dark clothing and the shadowy, featureless backgrounds, which envelop them. The careful attention to detail which characterizes much of Freer’s work also most likely has its roots in this early training. He seems to have been particularly interested in objects with transparent or reflective surfaces; veils, mirrors, windows and clear glass vases full of flowers are common motifs in his paintings. Freer continued his studies in Munich until 1871, though he sent works home to exhibitions at the Chicago Academy of Design in 1868 and 1869. One such work, a watercolor titled Venus, a drawing after Canova (location unknown), proves that Freer was studying and copying a variety of other artists in addition to the Dutch and Germans.
The Freer family arrived back in Chicago in September 1871, just prior to the Great Chicago Fire in October which destroyed their home and belongings. Freer’s father returned to his teaching position at Rush Medical College and began trying to rebuild the family’s fortunes. However, little is known about Frederick’s activities between 1871 and 1873. It is possible he returned to Munich for further study during this time, but considering the family’s financial situation, it seems unlikely. And since the Chicago Academy of Design, along with many other Chicago exhibition venues, had been damaged or destroyed in the fire, there was little opportunity to exhibit locally until 1873 when construction of the Inter-state Industrial Exposition complex was completed. Like many other Chicago artists, Freer may have left the area to work and train elsewhere during those two years.
Freer did participate in the large art show held at the new Industrial Exposition complex in 1873 and sometime between 1873 and 1875 he traveled to San Louis Potosi, Mexico, where he created a number of drawings in pen, ink and pencil, as well as watercolors, oil paintings and etchings of the area. Work from this trip and from his studies in Munich, were exhibited at the Chicago Academy Design in June of 1875. Freer was elected an Academician in the Chicago Academy of Design the following year on the strength of his Mexican work and his rising reputation as a portraitist. The Chicago Academy of Design consisted of four membership classes including Academician, Associate, Honorary Academician and Fellow. Academicians were those considered most proficient in painting, sculpture, architecture, engraving or design.]
Freer’s father died in April 1877. That fall, Freer returned to Europe, traveling first to Munich, then to Paris, Holland and Italy. During this second trip to Munich, Freer became closely associated with the American artists Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) and J. Frank Currier (1843-1909), though he probably had already met Duveneck during his first trip to Germany. It is also likely that Freer first met William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) at this time. Chase and Duveneck, along with Walter Shirlaw (1838-1909) and J. Frank Currier, had emerged as the leading American painters in Munich. Duveneck and Chase had both acquired reputations for creating richly executed realist paintings in the Munich style. Duveneck retained this style throughout his lifetime though Chase went on to become one of the leading American Impressionists. Freer developed a working relationship with Duveneck which continued after their Munich years; portraits of each other and pairs of paintings of the same subjects in the Montgomery (Alabama) Museum of Fine Arts collection testify they stayed in contact and continued to paint together when they had the opportunity. Moreover, during the 1900s, Freer also became a member of and regularly exhibited with the Society of Western Artists, which Duveneck, who served as its first president, co-founded.
Freer spent the summer of 1879 in Polling, Bavaria, along with Duveneck, Currier and their students. It is unclear whether Freer traveled to Polling as Duveneck’s student or companion, but considering their equivalent levels of training and experience, he most likely was not one of the “Duveneck boys.” Freer painted a number of watercolors and oils of Polling and the South Tyrol landscape. After leaving Polling, Freer went on to Paris where he remained for the better part of a year. There currently is no evidence which suggests he studied at any of the Parisian academies or with a private instructor. Most likely he spent his time visiting other artists, attending museums and exhibitions and absorbing the new developments in contemporary French painting.
Freer returned to the United States in 1880, apparently visiting Chicago first, then settling in New York City where he immediately set about making a name for himself. He began exhibiting at a number of New York locations including the National Academy of Design, the Society of American Artists and the Brooklyn Art Association, as well as exhibiting work in other Eastern locales such as at the Boston Art Club and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. During this period he remained active at the exhibitions of the Chicago Academy of Design and the Chicago Inter-State Industrial Exposition. He joined a number of artist clubs, such as the Society of American Artists, the American Watercolor Society, the New York Etching Club and the Salmagundi Club, where he met and exhibited with a number of well-known and rising American artists. The result of one such meeting led to the painting, titled Andante (location unknown), done in collaboration with Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938) in 1883.
Freer also began to explore other media such as etching, producing a number of plates of scenes from his travels in Germany and Mexico, as well as reproducing several of his more popular paintings. In addition, he began painting a range of subjects from portraits and idealized heads to still-life and landscapes. Freer had worked with watercolor from his earliest days in Munich, but he intensively pursued the medium during this period in New York. As he stated: “Water-color painting was a delight and on my return from Europe in 1880 I used to work for hours at a time, tacking the paper to the floor and bending over and working out the picture practically between my feet.” Freer’s watercolors won for him widespread recognition in New York.
The years between 1883 to 1885 were particularly active for Freer. His name frequently appeared in exhibition reviews in the New York newspapers indicating growing public interest in his work and revealing his extensive exhibition record for those years. In June 1883, Freer traveled to Europe in the company of William Merritt Chase and H. Siddons Mowbray (1858-1928). To wile away the journey, the three artists decorated the smoking room of their ship, the S. S. Pennland. The purpose of Freer’s trip and other details of this journey are currently unknown though one writer has suggested that Freer continued on with Chase to Antwerp, Spain and Holland. Upon his return to New York, Freer was offered a job for the 1884-1885 school year at the Art Students League, where his friends William Merritt Chase and Walter Shirlaw were already employed. Freer taught drawing and painting, the morning head and afternoon life classes and the composition class with Walter Shirlaw. His growing reputation attracted the attention of major collectors of American art, such as Thomas B. Clarke who acquired his Choosing a Study (location unknown) in 1882, and he began to receive invitations to participate in special events such as the 1884 Louis Prang and Co. Christmas Card Competition at the American Art Gallery in New York.
On June 16, 1886 (his thirty-seventh birthday), Frederick Freer married Margaret Cecilia Keenan of New York. Little is currently known about Margaret Keenan: she was born in Richmond, New York, she and her sisters worked as artist’s models, and she also was an artist. She studied drawing, painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and exhibited at the National Academy of Design Annual in 1890, and at the 1890 Inter-State Industrial Exposition in Chicago.
She also was a member of the Lake View Art Club of Chicago and exhibited in their annual shows. She and Frederick Freer met when she came to pose for one of his pictures; they were married shortly thereafter but she continued to be Freer’s favorite model, appearing in a variety of poses, costumes and settings during the course of his career. Freer’s reputation as a painter of beautiful women is based partially on his extensive series of paintings of his wife. It was on the strength of one of his earliest and best-known portraits of his new bride, Lady in Black (Nassau County Museum of Art), exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the Boston Art Club in 1887, that Freer was elected an Associate of the National Academy in New York.
The work also later won a medal at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The Freers eventually had six children, two girls and four boys: Frederick Church (born 1888), Arthur Warren (born 1890), Paul Howard (born 1892), Otto Emil (born 1894), Catherine (birthdate unknown) who died as a toddler, and an unnamed daughter, who died in infancy. The Freer children also became common subjects for his brush and inspired many intimate domestic scenes of mothers and children.
During the last years of the 1880s, Freer diligently pursued his professional career, painting extensively and exhibiting frequently in New York, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis. It was at this time that he also began to develop a reputation as a painter of “beautiful women.” Like many of his American contemporaries in the late nineteenth century, Freer painted numerous pictures of graceful, elegant, ageless young women meditating, reading, playing music, or talking in quiet, richly furnished rooms.[55} In contrast to some of his compatriots, however, a number of Freer’s paintings go beyond simple depictions of idealized women in decorative poses to suggest an underlying narrative. His “fair-women series” was very popular and he became so closely identified with these kinds of images his other work was often eclipsed. As one contemporary pointed out:
“Despite the fact that he is an admirable watercolorist, etcher, pastelist and portraitist, Freer is commonly known in art circles as the painter of beautiful women’s faces.”
One ample demonstration of Freer’s successes with other media and subjects is the number of commissions for illustrations he obtained in the late 1880s. In 1887, Freer was asked to illustrate three small booklets of poetry based on popular hymns for the F. A. Stokes Publishing Company in New York. Each of the booklets was illustrated with four photogravures after designs by Freer. These works are his only known overtly religious images, aside from a watercolor painting of Dominican nuns titled Mater Dolorosa (location unknown). The following year he helped illustrate James Russell Lowell’s The Vision of Sir Launfal along with Bruce Crane (1857-1937), R. Swain Gifford (1840-1905), H. Siddons Mowbray, Walter Shirlaw and F. Hopkinson Smith (1838-1915), as well as providing images for editions of Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and Fair Ines by Tom Hood.
In 1889, Freer’s painting Nude Study (location unknown) was accepted for exhibition at the Universal Exposition in Paris, and he was invited to serve on the selection committees for the eleventh exhibition of the Society of American Artists and the National Academy of Design Annual. Freer relocated to the famous Tenth Street Studio building at 51 W. 10th St. early in 1890 where he shared space with such well-known American artists as J. G. Brown (1831-1913), William Merritt Chase, John La Farge (1835-1910) and Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910). Despite his continuing success in New York, Freer decided to return to Chicago in 1890, most likely drawn by family ties and other associations as well as the growing art scene in Chicago.
Before leaving New York, Freer held a sale of almost 200 of his works at the Fifth Avenue Auction Rooms on May 15, 1890. It is difficult to characterize Freer’s style at various periods because much of his work has not been located or is not dated. However, study of contemporary reviews, articles and the extant works from his New York years, reveal that his portraits generally continued to follow his Munich style, while his genre scenes and “beautiful woman” pictures exhibited a more colorful palette. Several works, like his Lady in Black (Nassau County Museum of Art) and Lady with Yellow Roses (Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts), were composed around varying tones of a single color. Freer apparently also created a number of paintings based on classical themes during his New York years such as Morning (location unknown), Nymph in the Woods (location unknown) and Nereid (location unknown).
By the fall 1890, Freer had settled into his new studio at the Art Institute of Chicago and was accepting private students. He continued to follow the routine he had established in New York, exhibiting widely in both the Chicago area and the rest of the country. He also actively participated in a number of Chicago artist clubs while maintaining ties with the New York clubs to which he belonged. Freer was a particularly prominent supporter of the Chicago Society of Artists which he had helped found in 1887 while still in New York. When the Society was forced out of its headquarters by a fire in 1892, the group took up temporary quarters in Freer’s studio at the Art Institute. Freer also became involved in the 1892 controversy over prize and membership restrictions within the Society, particularly the requirement that prizes could be awarded only to Chicago residents. In protest, a number of artists broke away from the Chicago Society of Artists and formed the Cosmopolitan Art Club; Freer was one of its founding members. Though the Cosmopolitan Art Club passed a resolution stating their members could not continue to be members of the Chicago Society of Artists, Freer and several others continued to exhibit in the Society’s annual shows.
Freer began teaching at the Art Institute in 1892 as a replacement for Oliver Dennett Grover (1861-1927) and remained an instructor there for the next sixteen years. He was coming into the position fresh with the fame of having sold a painting entitled Virgin [location unknown] for a reported $15,000, a princely sum at the time. He and John H. Vanderpoel (1857-1911) were the Institute’s senior and most influential professors and were in charge of the advanced students. It was said he cut “a conspicuous [and commanding] figure in the schoolroom; in respect to height and proportion.” There is some evidence that the relationship between Freer and Vanderpoel had a competitive edge. In a 1902 letter to Freer, William R. French, director of the Art Institute wrote “As you know, Vanderpoel always wants his work equalized with yours. It may be necessary therefore to let him have your all-day class at some period ”
Freer’s students described him as an inspiring teacher, a tactful critic and a kind, gentlemanly man. One student wrote:
“Mr. Frederick Freer was my favorite teacher, in fact I have never had one I considered as fine, although later I studied in Paris, for five years, under Jacque Blanche and others… He was the most considerate and kindest teacher I have ever had and if anything I ever paint is worth while [sic], it is due to his criticism…”
Fellow instructors were impressed by Freer’s versatility, flair for color and careful technique and he was felt by all to be an important influence on the direction and reputation of the school. Freer’s teaching activities continued during the summer. In 1896 he began teaching an outdoor summer sketch class at Riverside, Illinois with Martha Susan Baker (1871-1911), a fellow professor at the Art Institute. The classes continued for several years, moving to Lakeside, Illinois in 1897, Geneva, Illinois in 1898 and returning to Riverside in 1899.
Like most Chicago residents, Freer was caught up in preparations for the World’s Columbian Exposition during much of 1893. He was honored by being asked to serve on the National Art Selection Jury and contributed three works to the exhibition of American painting, winning a medal for his Lady in Black. Other awards soon followed. At the Chicago Society of Artists annual in 1894, Freer won first mention (essentially third place) for the Charles T. Yerkes prize, the most prestigious art prize awarded in Chicago. A number of his portraits also were featured in a special exhibition at the Art Institute including his family portraits, portraits of a number of Chicagoans and his painting of the artist, Edward Kemeys. In 1896, his painting Sympathy (Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts) won the Thomas B. Clarke cash prize for “the best American Figure Composition painted in the United States by an American Citizen” at the National Academy of Design annual exhibition. It was also during this period Freer relocated his studio from Wellington Avenue to the Studio Building at State and Ohio Streets.
When the new Tree Studio Building at State and Ontario was opened in 1896, he moved once again. Freer and his sister Cora shared adjoining studios in the new building. One contemporary noted: “It is a family party one meets in these two studios, for not only Mrs. Freer, but the little folks as well, serve for models.” At the grand opening of the building where thirty artists welcomed the public the press noted that Freer was one of the two best known residents.
From 1897 to 1899, Freer pursued a particularly heavy exhibition schedule, including a number of shows in the Chicago area as well as shows in New York, Cincinnati, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Omaha and Nashville. In addition, he held positions on several juries and served on the advisory committee for the Art Association of Chicago, which was organized in 1897. Also in 1897, Freer was honored by being invited to submit works to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts annual and to the Tennessee Centennial and International Exhibition in Nashville hors concours, without having to submit his works for approval by the selection committees. From 1899 to 1901, he served on the jury for the Carnegie International Exhibitions with such artists as Winslow Homer (1836-1910), John White Alexander (1856-1915), Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Robert W. Vonnoh (1858-1933).
Extant works from the 1890s and descriptions of works not located from the same period, indicate Freer began creating oil paintings in an impressionist style after his return to Chicago. Freer had visited Paris in the 1870s and early 1880s during the height of French Impressionism and also had been in New York in April 1885, when the landmark Durand-Ruel exhibition of French Impressionism was held at the American Art Association Galleries. Furthermore, he was in regular contact with a number of the American Impressionists, such as William Merritt Chase. Despite these influences, it currently appears Freer did not experiment with impressionist techniques in oil until he returned to Chicago in the 1890s, though reviewers often described the watercolors he exhibited in New York as “impressionistic.” What motivated the change is not clear.
Freer was unwilling to label himself as an Impressionist painter, though. When asked in an interview in 1901 he replied:
“For a long time after I followed my own individual bent, they used to call me an impressionist. Some of my work even now savors of impressionism, as indeed I think the work must of any man who undertakes to put on canvas his own views of life and nature.”
Although Freer employed the bright light, clear unblended colors and outdoor settings favored by the Impressionists in many of his works, he never seems to have been comfortable truly dissolving the boundaries of his forms; his loosest passages of impressionist brushwork are usually found in the backgrounds of his paintings. It is also important to note Freer never exclusively pursued an Impressionist style. Other extant works from the 1890s include detailed, realistic genre scenes, dark Munich-style portraits and numerous pictures of beautiful women painted in a rich, Beaux-Arts style emphasizing color, texture and fine detail.
It is also during the 1890s that Freer’s reputation as a portrait painter blossomed. In Chicago that he received some of his most prestigious commissions from elite patrons such as Mrs. Potter Palmer’s request for portraits of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Honore (location unknown). Freer also painted a number of portraits of his friends and fellow teachers at the Art Institute. He was praised for his ability to capture the individual characters of his sitters. As one critic commented:
“His portraits are most satisfying in that they preserve the individuality of the person… The work is most exquisitely done, every detail is carefully given, the coloring is natural, the finish is perfect and yet the pictured face is eloquent with the expression and the character of the original.”
Freer continued his active career into the new century. He joined the Municipal Art League when it formed in 1900, continuing his prominent participation in Chicago’s art societies. He also exhibited in a two-man show at the O’Brien Art Galleries in Chicago entitled “Out of Door Work” and in the annual exhibitions at the Art Institute, as well as shows in Cincinnati and Boston. In 1901, he was interviewed by the writer Frederick Morton for the magazine Brush and Pencil. In the article Freer discussed his working method leaving one of the few surviving firsthand records of his thoughts about his art. In it he said:
“The essential thing in all my work is, that I arrange my composition carefully and then with the simplest sort of palette, just a few primary colors, I work out my ideas until the finished result satisfies me. One often hears of authors allowing their tales to grow under the pen. Well, I often follow the same practice… [When oil painting engrossed my attention, I worked with a small palette and short brushes. Now I prefer to tack my palette to the easel and work with a brush four or five feet long so as to be almost as far from the canvas as from the model.”
Later in the article Morton described and illustrated Freer’s first and only sculpture, a plaster cast titled Ideal Head (location unknown), created that year in response to a challenge from a fellow artist.
Also in 1901, Freer won a bronze medal for painting at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York and was awarded the prestigious Martin B. Cahn prize for his painting The Old Gown (location unknown) in the American Annual exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition, he was commissioned to paint three memorial portraits of Art Institute trustee Charles W. Fullerton by Fullerton’s sister, Mrs. Hill. The Art Institute chose one of the portraits (a half-portrait, Art Institute of Chicago) for their collection and it was hung in Fullerton Memorial Hall. The portrait also hung in a place of honor on the east wall of the east gallery during the 1901 Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists at the Art Institute.
During Winter 1901-1902, Freer became ill and had to temporarily relinquish his teaching duties. His illness may have been one reason why he moved his studio to the Freer family home at 224 East Ontario Street in 1902 where his sister Cora joined him. Fellow Chicago artists William Wendt (1865-1946) and Frank Charles Peyraud (1858-1948) were also in the building, called Holbein Studios. His home had for years served as a studio as Freer acknowledged in 1894: “Studio?… why bless you, I haven’t any studio. I paint all over the house - dining room, kitchen, roof when I can get on it, anywhere the fancy strikes me.”
In 1902 Freer won a silver medal at the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exhibit for his painting Nursery Rhymes (also known as Mother and Child Reading, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts). He was also awarded the Silver Medal, designed by William Wendt’s wife Julia Bracken (1871-1942), by the Chicago Society of Artists for Portrait (Also known as Self Portrait, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts) at the Art Institute Annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists. The medal was a particular compliment as it was awarded by vote of the artists in the Society. Freer also participated in the 1903 Carnegie annual, exhibiting his Self Portrait (Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts). The following year, he won a bronze medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and he was commissioned to paint a number of portraits of university dignitaries including Dr. Oliver Marcy of Northwestern University (Northwestern University) and Dr. James Burrill Orgell (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), president of Michigan University.
Freer continued to exhibit with at the National Academy of Design (he was a juror in 1905) as well as with the Society of Western Artists, at the Art Institute and at the Corcoran Gallery of Art among other venues. In 1906 a retrospective of his work was held at the Art Institute from January 2 to January 21, 1906.
By March of 1907, Freer was once again showing signs of illness though he exhibited works at shows in Chicago, Boston, Buffalo and Cincinnati. He also joined the Municipal Court of Art, a group formed to protect collectors from purchasing counterfeit Old Master paintings. He spent that summer at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, teaching a summer sketch class and painting a series of watercolors of the surrounding landscape. Several of these landscapes are highly impressionistic with passages approaching pure abstraction. Overall, the series is characterized by the use of a new, high-toned palette of clear greens, yellows, pinks and blues.
On the evening of March 7, 1908, Frederick Warren Freer suffered a heart attack and died at home in bed. He was fifty-eight years old. In an unprecedented show of respect, his body lay in state at Fullerton Memorial Hall at the Art Institute and funeral services were conducted at the Hall on March tenth. Six of Freer’s students acted as pallbearers. A memorial group of his paintings was shown at the Marshall Field and Co. galleries, Chicago in January, 1909, the American Watercolor Society Annual in 1909 and a memorial exhibition of his work was later held at the National Arts Club in New York in January and February 1913. Freer was survived by his wife and four sons. He left no will and apparently no appreciable estate. The contents of his studio became the property of his wife, Margaret Freer. She relocated to Fairhope, Alabama around 1919 and in April 1936, she donated eighty-seven of Freer’s paintings to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama. The estate left upon her death in February 1946 listed no other artworks by her husband.
The hallmark of Freer’s long and varied career as an artist was the ease with which he adapted to the shifting interests of his era. His style ranged freely from the realistic, genre scenes and dark portraits of the Munich school, to loosely painted, light-filled impressionist scenes and lush Beaux-Arts style portraits. No one style was ever in ascendance for long and even late in his career he created works that were reminiscent of his earliest days in Munich. Freer’s painting technique is also best described as versatile, shifting with apparent ease between a smooth, highly polished finish to loose forms composed of unblended daubs of color. Much of his work, however, occupies a technical middle ground and reflects his early training in Munich. On first appearance his paintings give the impression they were created effortlessly, but they reveal on closer inspection the underlying structure of brushstrokes and color modulations. The technique and style chosen for each work shifted with time and subject. Freer himself stated: “My interests have changed and my methods have changed with my interests.”
Frederick Freer was a consummate late nineteenth century American artist. He experimented with a number of different styles and media but his explorations were always tempered by classical modes of composition and traditional standards of technique. He was dedicated to his craft, his students and most notably to the progress of art in Chicago. As an artist, a teacher and an active participant in the Chicago art community, he contributed to the rising prominence of the city as an important center for American art. Throughout his lifetime he maintained a reputation as a man of character and an artist worthy of note. In an article written a year after his death, a friend summarized the key to his success:
“He had a well-stored mind and gave lavishly of its treasures without the slightest suggestion of pedantry or magisterial pose… Throughout his long career as an artist, not once did he paint a gruesome picture or one dealing with tragedy or wretchedness. Always he believed that the function of art is to gladden life, not to perpetuate its miseries on canvas.”
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