What does the Freer Have to do with Laudato Si?

Over the last few weeks, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery has reopened after an eighteen month restoration.  The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott has done a fine review of the museum’s renewal.  While the Freer and its sister gallery, the Sackler, are most known for their impressive collections of Asian Art, the Freer began as the home of Charles Lang Freer’s personal collection.  It was, in fact, the Smithsonian’s first museum dedicated solely to art.  I’m a big fan of all the works in this gem of a museum, but as a confirmed old occidental, I have a soft spot for the Euro-American pieces by James M. Whistler and John Singer Sargent.  

On a recent visit to the Museum, I got reacquainted with Whistler and Sargent’s elegant portraiture, their brilliant Venetian sketches and oils… and a new group of paintings: Whistler’s Nocturnes.  Painting in industrial England, Whistler captured classic subject matter at an historical turning point: the industrial revolution.  His river scenes, captured at twilight (hence the title nocturne ) are sometimes called “dirty” oils because they appear to be grimy, filthy.  

In fact, there’s nothing wrong with Whistler’s paintings.  He accurately captured the world’s first major manifestation of smog.  Doing so, the artist captures in oil something of what Dickens achieved with words… the deep sense that a certain corruption now obscures the beauty of old England.  Sun and moon try their best to pierce the gloom of the new world order testifying to the perseverance of hope as eloquently as Bob Cratchet, Oliver, or Joe Gargery ever did.  Whether considering Whistler’s paintings or Dickens’ words what comes through is the human toll of unbridled economic revolution.  

In their day, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum spoke up for the needs of the suffering.  Today, we are blessed with Pope Francis’ moral encyclical Laudato Si reminding us that we’re not just talking about a few rivers in England or the US.  Trade and economics have vastly expanded the impact of today’s industrial/technological advances.  No corner of the world is free from the effects, and the number of the poor negatively impacted by new economies has grown at a geometric rate.  Many think that Laudato Si is primarily about climate change; it’s not.  The document is about putting humanity at the heart of economic planning… which necessarily includes environmental awareness.  Call it, perhaps, ‘Industrial Moral Theology.’  

I’d encourage anyone who loves art, history, or climate awareness to stop in to the renovated Freer.  You won’t be disappointed… and perhaps the lessons of Whistler’s time can help all of us to make healthy decisions in the future.