The collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, includes almost three hundred Korean ceramics spanning the Three Kingdoms, Unified Silla, Goryeo, and Joseon periods. This online catalogue presents all of those works and gives information about their dating, place of production, and provenance. The notable strengths of the collection are celadon wares of the Goryeo period (918–1392) and tea bowls made for the Japanese market in the Joseon period (1392–1910).
Many of the Korean ceramics were collected by the Gallery’s founder, Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919). A Detroit-based businessman who made his fortune manufacturing railroad cars, Freer began his engagement with art by acquiring the tonalist paintings of James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and a select handful of other American artists. Color and surface remained a priority when his collecting expanded to Asian ceramics.
Freer made four long trips to Asia in the course of his collecting career, but he never set foot in Korea. He depended upon dealers based in the United States to make his purchases of Korean works—overwhelmingly ceramics—and his choices somewhat followed trends of his day. He began in 1896 with tea bowls and other Joseon period vessels that had been part of Japanese collections. When, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the rising interest in Chinese Song dynasty (960–1279) ceramics also drew attention to contemporaneous and aesthetically related ceramics of the Goryeo period, Freer shifted his collecting in that direction. In the 1910s, railroad construction, political disruption, and rampant banditry in China revealed the fascinating archaeological materials to be recovered from tombs and other sites, and Freer turned his attention to archaeological specimens from Korea as well as China, and to ceramics of the Three Kingdoms (18–668) and Unified Silla (668–918) periods.
Since the 1960s, gifts from other collectors have expanded the Freer Gallery’s collection of Korean ceramics. While serving in the US Foreign Service from 1947 to 1950, Rolf Jacoby formed a small, choice collection of Korean and Chinese ceramics; his widow, Maureen R. Jacoby, gave selected items to the museum in 1996. The family of Ambassador Samuel D. Berger donated some of his ceramics to the Freer in 1980 and 2002; the museum purchased another Berger work in 1985. In 1996, the museum bought a group of Buncheong and Bunwon ware bowls from the collection formed by sculptor Maia Henderson and her husband Gregory Henderson, a diplomat in Seoul from 1959 to 1963. Other gifts that represent personal connections to Korea were made by Corliss and Randolph Harris in 1980 and Grace Gosnell Tucker in 1999.
The full scope of the Korean collection in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is presented in the guidebook Korean Art in the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Our free iPad app, Charles Lang Freer: Collecting Korea, explores interactively how Freer formed his collection of Korean art throughout his lifetime. Like the guidebook and the app, this website was realized with the generous support of the National Museum of Korea.
The Freer Gallery of Art’s accession number system gives the year in which the object was acquired, whether by purchase, gift, or bequest. For objects given to the Freer Gallery by founder Charles Lang Freer, the year represents the year when Freer himself acquired the object, not the year of Freer’s gift to the museum. Details are given in individual records under Provenance.
Please direct comments or queries about this website to Louise Cort, curator for ceramics.