"It is always better to be an original than an imitation." - T.R.
Including the Freer Gallery in a T.R.-themed journal is admittedly a bit of a stretch, but not as much as you might think. Roosevelt, by his own admission, was no art connoisseur. However, had he not personally intervened, the Freer Gallery would probably never have been built. As the Freer, with its hushed, cool marble halls built around a lovely central courtyard, is one of my favorite places in Washington, I feel a personal indebtedness to T.R. whenever I seek refuge there on a hot summer’s day.
When wealthy Detroit businessman and art collector Charles Lang Freer wanted to donate his extensive collection of Asian and American art to the Smithsonian in 1904, the Board of Regents was not inclined to accept it. Short on funds and focused exclusively on the sciences, the Smithsonian directors were suspicious of new endeavors. However, Freer knew Roosevelt, and soon T.R. took a personal interest in the matter, exerting his not-inconsiderable influence. The regents duly accepted Freer’s bequest. The Freer Gallery of Art thus become the first Smithsonian museum dedicated to the arts.
The Freer Gallery is peculiar in – or should I say distinguished by – the fact that it represents the personal tastes of essentially one man. Freer stipulated that his collection be neither added to, loaned, or borrow from other sources, although he later agreed to allow additions to the ancient Asian collection. The objects a visitor sees at the gallery are all from Freer’s own collection or have been added to a collection he started. The displays of Japanese screens and pottery, Chinese bronzes and calligraphy, and Egyptian and Near Eastern artifacts are exquisite.
But it is in the area of turn-of-the-century American painting that the Freer truly shines. The gallery houses one of the largest – if not the largest - collection of works by James McNeill Whistler, including the famous "Peacock Room" originally done for Frederick Leyland’s London home. Roosevelt, I might add, was a great admirer of Whistler, but it is the work of another artist Freer collected, Abbott H. Thayer, that establishes a true artistic connection between T.R. and the Freer.
Thayer, like Roosevelt, was a dedicated conservationist and avid birdwatcher. The two men shared similar interests and were friends and frequent correspondents. An eccentric blend of scientist, naturalist, and artist, Thayer formulated a theory of natural protective coloration, and in 1909 he published a book on the subject. His ideas were not well received, however. Chief among his critics was fellow naturalist Roosevelt, who took exception to his theories. The two men had a bitter falling out.
However, Thayer was one of the few men to have the last laugh on T.R. His ideas were later used during W.W.I, when the science of "camouflage" was born. And whom did Thayer contact about a possible military application for his theories? Why, none other than Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.