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Frederick Warren Freer

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Frederick Warren Freer
(Kennicott's Grove, Illinois, 1849 - 1908, Chicago, Illinois)

Frederick Warren Freer was born on June 16, 1849 in Kennicott's Grove, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. (1) His father, Joseph Warren Freer, was a doctor and for a time served as president of Rush Medical College. Freer was raised in Chicago and attended public schools. He was originally expected to become a doctor like his father, but a childhood illness at age 14 left him partially deaf, and he was instead encouraged to develop his talent for drawing.

In 1867, at the age of 18, Freer traveled to Munich to study at the Royal Academy. He remained there until 1872, when family financial setbacks caused by the Chicago fire forced him to return home. He spent the next five years living in Chicago studying art, exhibiting, and occasionally traveling, including a trip to Mexico in 1873 or 1874.

After his father's death in 1877, Freer returned to Munich and resumed his studies at the Royal Academy. It was during this time that he met Frank Duveneck, J. Frank Currier, and William Merritt Chase. He became friends with Duveneck and Currier and they painted together regularly, often depicting the same subjects from different points of view. (2) In the summer of 1878, Freer traveled to Polling, Bavaria with Duveneck and his students known as "the Duveneck boys". (3) That fall he began visiting other parts of Europe including France, Holland, and Italy, sketching and painting along the way.

Freer returned to the United States in 1880 and settled in New York City. He began to participate extensively in the American art scene, showing his work in a regular schedule of exhibitions across the country and executing a number of commissions for portraits and other scenes. It was during this period that the American art collector, Thomas B. Clarke, discovered his work and purchased several paintings. In 1883, Freer traveled to Paris with William Merritt Chase and in fall of that year he began teaching at the Art Students League, on Chase's recommendation. Freer also began to try his hand at etching and illustration work, participating in the Louis Prang Christmas card competition in 1884 and illustrating a number of books and music covers. (4)

In 1886, Freer married fellow artist, Margaret Cecilia Keenan, an event that was to have a lasting impact on the future course of his art. Margaret Freer quickly became Freer's main subject, appearing in a variety of guises and painted in several different styles. Other family members also became regular subjects, particularly the Freer's seven children, earning Freer a reputation for painting portraits of beautiful women and sensitive mother and child scenes (5) During this period, Freer also began working extensively in watercolor and exhibiting with the American Watercolor Society, receiving particular notice from the New York press for his florals and portraits. Freer was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1887.

Freer and his family returned to Chicago in 1890, (6) and he began teaching drawing, painting, and still life at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1892. (7) During the 1890s, Freer continued to paint and exhibit regularly in addition to teaching, and won several awards including a medal at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, (8) the Thomas B. Clarke prize from the National Academy of Design in 1896 for his painting Sympathy, (9) and a silver medal in 1902 in the Cotton State Exposition, Charleston, South Carolina. By the turn of the century, however, Freer seems to have begun painting and exhibiting less and focusing more on his teaching. In 1906, the Art Institute of Chicago held a small retrospective of his works and he was appointed director of the Chicago Academy of Design later that same year. In 1907, he traveled to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin where he produced an extensive series of watercolors of the lake and surrounding area. (10) On March 7th of the following year, he died of a heart attack at his home in Chicago. (11)

Though at least 500 paintings are known to have been created by Freer, in addition to drawings, etchings, and illustrations, the whereabouts of only approximately one hundred works is now known. The majority of these paintings are in the collection of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts with small collections at the John H. Vanderpoel Art Association in Chicago, the National Academy of Design in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and individual works in the collections of the Art Students League in New York, the Dallas Museum of Art, and in private collections in Dallas, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D. C.

Freer was devoted to a career as a working artist. He was highly productive and experimented with a variety of media including oil painting, watercolor, etching, and pen and ink drawing. He was a regular member of exhibition selection juries and hanging committees and belonged to a long list of artist societies including the Society of American Artists, the American Watercolor Society, the Water Color Club (New York), the New York Etchers Club, the Society of Western Artists, the Chicago Society of Artists, and the American Art Union. Freer also exhibited constantly at exhibitions across the United States, in Europe, and locally in small clubs and galleries.

Though he tried a variety of media, Freer worked mostly in oil and watercolor. His subjects ranged from portraits and genre scenes to landscapes, still lifes, and an occasional allegorical work. He would block out his compositions with a simple palette of primary colors and then proceed to fill in the details. (12) His painting methods appear to have been somewhat unorthodox. He said that he often painted his watercolors bending over the paper on the floor feeling that he had a better command of the colors in this way. Also, when oil painting he would tack his palette to his easel and stand at some distance from his canvas working with long brushes. (13) Though he showed particular facility with facial features and objects, Freer never seems to have been comfortable with painting standing clothed figures. His subjects, even in his genre works, tend to be seated, and where full standing figures are shown, the bodies often seem out of proportion to the subject's head. His drawings of standing nudes, however, show none of this awkwardness.

Freer's style was highly variable over the course of his career, encompassing both European and American traditions. (14) His earliest works carry the hallmarks of his training in Munich exhibiting a dark, limited palette and heavy shadows; the portraits from this period focus almost exclusively on the subject's face and expression. Under the influence of William Merritt Chase and the New York art scene of the 1880s, Freer developed a polished, Beaux-Arts style and brightened his palette. (15) In the 1890s, he also tried his hand at Impressionism, experimenting with its bright colors, outdoor settings, and broken brushstrokes. (16) Though he never fully pursued an Impressionist style, a number of his works reflect his continuing interest in the use of small strokes of varied color in shadows and background details. Since so few of Freer's works are now extant and many are undated, it is difficult to develop a stylistic chronology for his works, but he appears to have moved easily back and forth between styles within the same period, personifying the shifting interests of the era in which he worked. (17)

Freer's portraits of women, for which he was best known, range from straightforward character studies to idealized celebrations of female beauty. Though his wife was a constant model, the variety of ways in which he painted her and the generic titles he attached to these works, made them stand as pictures of an ideal female type rather than individualized portraits. These works often seem to be exercises in painting "beautiful things", consisting of careful variations on a single color tone, for example, or containing carefully depicted objects, textures, or settings.

(1) Biographical information has been compiled from the following sources: Information on file, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson Library, Chicago, Illinois; information on file, The Illinois Historical Art Project, Golf, Illinois; "Frederick W. Freer, Painter," Brush and Pencil, Vol. 8 no. 6, September, 1901, pp. 289-300.
(2) For example, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts owns two portraits of Freer's daughter, Katherine, from slightly different angles, one painted by Duveneck (#1936.28) and the other by Freer (#1936.29).
(3) Duveneck scholar, Anne Norcross, has said that Freer appears to have been traveling as a companion of Duveneck's rather than a student.
(4) Freer's dated illustration work is all from the years 1887 and 1888. The works illustrated include: Charles Wesley, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, FA Stokes, New York, 1887; Augustus Montague Toplady, Rock of Ages, FA Stokes, New York, 1887; Sarah Fuller Adams, Nearer, My God, to Thee, FA Stokes and Brother, New York, 1888; James Russell Lowell, The Vision of Sir Launfal, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., New York, 1888. Freer is also known to have illustrated an edition of Tom Hood's novel Fair Ines and George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (publishers and dates unknown). See Walter Montgomery's American Art and American Art Collections, Volume I, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 1978 (reprint), pp. 193-207 for reproductions of a number of these illustrations.
(5) Many of these scenes of Freer's wife and his children are given an added pathos by the fact that three of the Freer children died during Freer's lifetime and only one survived their mother, Margaret Freer (see the obituaries on file, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts).
(6) Freer held a large sale of his works at the Fifth Avenue Auction Rooms in New York prior to leaving New York City. The works included drawings and watercolors from his trips to Mexico and Germany, all of which are now lost. The locations of most of the oil paintings in this sale are also unknown.
(7) Freer remained a member of the faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago until his death in 1908. He appears to have been a popular teacher. Reminiscences by several students of Freer's can be found in the scrapbooks of the Art Institute. Copies are also on file in the Curatorial Department at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.
(8) Freer was the only American artist west of New York to win a medal at the Exposition.
(9) Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts acquisition number 1936.0024.
(10) Currently, it is uncertain whether Freer had visited the area before, but he seems to have been greatly affected by the setting. At least fifteen of the watercolors created during his 1907 trip are in the permanent collection of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.
(11) The contents of Freer's studio were inherited by Freer's wife, Margaret. During the early 1920s, Margaret Freer moved to Fairhope, Alabama and through visits to Montgomery, she came to know several prominent members of the Montgomery community. She was eventually persuaded in 1936 by Mrs. Harry Houghton, then President of the Museum, to donate a group of 86 paintings to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. The gift included paintings by Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase, and Frank Currier but was primarily composed of paintings by Frederick Freer.
(12) "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." (Brush and Pencil, 1901, p. 297).
(13) "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. I was younger then and not so stout, and I fancied that I could get a better command of my colors in that way. Later, 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" (Brush and Pencil, 1901, pp. 295-297).
(14) "I can say little about my art. My interests have changed and my methods have changed with my interests. Just how and why I broke away from the Munich school I do not know, but it seems that I did effectually. 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" (Brush and Pencil, 1901, p. 295).
(15) One critic has noted the influence of Whistler's portrait style of this period on Freer's work (see The Quest for Unity: American Art Between the World's Fair, 1876-1893, Detroit Institute of Art, 1983, p. 111-112). Freer is also known to have painted a work in conjunction with Thomas Wilmer Dewing during this period, called Andante.
(16) Diane Gingold has suggested that the colors and subjects of a number of Freer's work are reminiscent of the works of Renoir and Mary Cassatt ("Frederick W. Freer 1849-1908," brochure of an exhibition, October 19, 1976 to March 7, 1977, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts).
(17) It is possible that this versatility of Freer's may have been a deliberate strategy considering the devotion with which he worked at being a professional artist. However, in the few writings about his art which survive, Freer expresses little interest in being identified with a particular style or school. He seems to have chosen whatever style he thought best for the subject (see for example, Brush and Pencil, 1901, p. 295).

(Margaret Bullock, Kapelanski Scholar, October 15, 1997)

Image credit: Portrait of Frederick Warren Freer, (c) CC-by-PD

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