Art lovers who visit my hometown of Washington, DC have an almost embarrassing wealth of opportunities to view art collections classical, Baroque, Renaissance, modern, postmodern, and otherwise through the Smithsonian’s network of museums. From the East and West Wings of the National Gallery, to the Hirshhorn, with its wondrous sculpture garden, to the American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery—I’ll admit, it can be a little overwhelming, and far too much to take in during a weekend jaunt, especially if you’ve got restless family in tow. (One can’t, after all, miss the Natural History or Air and Space Museums… or, you know… those monuments.)
In all the bustle of a DC vacation, however, one collection tends to get overlooked, and it is one of my personal favorites—the Freer and Sackler Galleries, which house the Smithsonian’s unique collection of Asian art, including the James McNeill Whistler-decorated Peacock Room. (See his “Harmony in Blue and Gold” above.)
Standing in this re-creation of museum founder Charles Freer’s personal 19th century gallery—which he had relocated from London to his Detroit mansion in 1904—is an aesthetic experience like no other. And like most such experiences, there really is no virtual equivalent. Nonetheless, should you have to hustle past the Freer and Sackler collections on your DC vacation, or should you be unable to visit the nation’s capital at all, you can still get a taste of the beautiful works of art these buildings contain.
Like many major museums all over the world—including the National Gallery, the Rijksmuseum, The British Library, and over 200 others—the Freer/Sackler has made its collection, all of it, available to view online. You can also download much of it.
See delicate 16th century Iranian watercolors like “Woman with a spray of flowers” (top), powerful Edo period Japanese ink on paper drawings like “Thunder god” (above), and astonishingly intricate 15th century Tibetan designs like the “Four Mandala Vajravali Thangka” (below). And so, so much more.
As Freer/Sackler director Julian Raby describes the initiative, “We strive to promote the love and study of Asian art, and the best way we can do so is to free our unmatched resources for inspiration, appreciation, academic study, and artistic creation.” There are, writes the galleries’ website, Bento, “thousands of works now ready for you to download, modify, and share for noncommercial purposes.” More than 40,000, to be fairly precise.
You can browse the collection to your heart’s content by “object type,” topic, name, place, date, or “on view.” Or you can conduct targeted searches for specific items. In addition to centuries of art from all over the far and near East, the collection includes a good deal of 19th century American art, like the sketch of Whistler’s mother, below, perhaps a preparatory drawing for his most famous painting. Though I do recommend that you visit these exquisite galleries in person if you can, you must at least take in their collections via this generous online collection and its bounty of international artistic treasures. Get started today.