Remembering the Artist Robert J. Freiman

Robert J. Freiman (1917–91) was a fascinating and talented man, and I called him my friend. When I first heard of the NHA’s 2007 summer exhibition, The Nantucket Art Colony, 1920–45, I immediately thought of Bob and the work he had produced on Nantucket during a lengthy career and as a founding member (1945) of the Artists Association of Nantucket. I had seen one of his portraits in an earlier AAN exhibition, Founding Members, mounted in 1995. At that time I felt that more of his work should have been included. This was especially the case as the work displayed was done in a very realistic style, not typical of Bob’s later, and in my view, more characteristic work.

Bob Freiman and I first became acquainted in 1971 when I attended one of his openings. I was taken by his wonderful palette, exciting use of line, and unusual approach to his subject matter. After acquiring his impressive watercolor, Nantucket Holly, I was hooked. I began to look for more pieces to add to my collection. I had become a Freiman fan, and a friendship was born.

Each summer thereafter I attended Bob’s openings. He was frequently accompanied by his charming and exotic mother, Madame Augusta Aronowitz. Dressed in a colorful caftan, bedecked with dangling jewelry, her head swathed in a turban, she seemed to have stepped out of her son’s wild and color splashed oeuvres. Her presence was, in fact, more supportive than social. Bob was profoundly deaf. He had attended the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York, where he had learned to produce effective speech. He had also learned to read lips. I found his ability in this area so well developed that I communicated with him quite easily. However, Madame Aronowitz was close at hand if potential collectors might need some assistance making themselves understood. Bob also relied on a Magic Slate, a child’s toy upon which one could write and he could respond.

During the 1970s Bob was a guest in my home in Milton, Massachusetts, and later, in 1981, we were travel companions on a trip to Paris. During that trip I learned more about Bob, and became aware of his eccentric behavior. I came to understand that his work and sleep habits made him less than a pleasant travel companion. He worked all day en plein air, and slept little.

I continued to look for Bob’s showings during my summer visits to Nantucket, but realized that he was coming to Nantucket less frequently after the early 1980s. I learned that he was working in Stonington, Connecticut, leaving his Manhattan home for the summer. He often visited St. Paul-de-Vence, France, during cold months, producing some of his most freely worked pieces. In each place he visited, he painted, recording in a rapid rush of color and line his own perceptions.

Bob again appeared on Nantucket one summer in the mid-’80s. He had returned to the island for what was to be the last time, setting up a gallery on Old North Wharf. It was there that I found him sharing the beauty of his work with daily visitors. Since he was an avid beach denizen, he asked for and was given permission to park his car in the driveway of my cottage at Surfside.

Before his last visit, Bob had suffered the loss of his beloved mother to a prolonged illness. As she declined, he used his most precious gift to memorialize her passing—sketching and painting her often. Though
never showing her face, this remarkable series was a tangible result of his grief, but terrible for me to behold. I think of this collection as a bizarre result of the intimate bond between those two souls.

In late August 1991, Bob’s friend, Professor Rosette Lamont, was in residence on Nantucket. A chance meeting in town brought the sad news that Bob was in a rest home and failing. Though only 74, his health was broken and his family members and friends knew they had little time to say their last good bye. I arranged to go to New York. I was too late. A week before my arrival, Robert Freiman died on September 3, 1991.

From the 1930s through 1981, Robert Freiman’s vivid colors, strong and fluid line, and sensitive choice of subject brought the world around him, that silent world in which he was forced to live, alive and moving, ringing with the sounds of his imagination, onto his canvas. His palette was wild, reflective of his zany and eccentric life style. His love of the exotic was displayed in the Cossack dancers leaping off the pages of his memorable sketch book. He was a prodigious and facile artist— giving the lie to the belief that the production of great work must be laborious and prolonged.

I love his art. I admired his courage. He was a frenzied, exciting, and gifted man—not one loved by all who knew him. In spite of his sometimes difficult personal style, I will always treasure his work and value his friendship.

René LaPierre: a longtime Nantucket summer resident, is an accomplished pianist and organist as well as an enthusiastic collector

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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