hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture May 2024


A modernist sanctuary in the Berkshires

Artists’ historic home displays their love of 20th century styles


Executive Director Kinney Freylinghuysen stands on the spiral staircase inside the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio in Lenox, Mass. The museum was the home of the 20th century artists and collectors George L.K. Morris and Suzy Freylinghausen, who helped introduce America to Modernism. Susan Sabino photo


Executive Director Kinney Freylinghuysen stands on the spiral staircase inside the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio in Lenox, Mass. The museum was the home of the 20th century artists and collectors George L.K. Morris and Suzy Freylinghausen, who helped introduce America to Modernism. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.

A visit to the Freylinghuysen Morris House & Studio offers a step back in time to the early and mid-20th century — and the emergence of abstract art and the modernist aesthetic in America.
The historic house museum, at 92 Hawthorne St. along the Stockbridge town line, is unusual in that it presents paintings, sculpture, murals, frescoes and other works of art within the context of a furnished home that integrates the modern art, architecture, design and decor of the period.
The house, on a 44-acre estate with woods and gardens near Tanglewood, was the home and studio of George L.K. Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen, a couple who were influential artists and advocates for abstract art from the 1930s onward. They also were collectors, so in addition to their own work, their former home includes works by Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Juan Gris, Georges Braque and other prominent artists of the era.

The museum is open annually from June 20 to Columbus Day, and in addition to its permanent collection, it sponsors special exhibits, art workshops, and other activities and events during the season.

Morris and Frelinghuysen were members of prominent families. Morris initially built his studio in 1930, in the architectural style of the Bauhaus, on a portion of Brookhurst, an estate owned by his family.

The couple added the residential portion of the house to the studio building in 1941. The two-story stucco and glass block house was designed by local architect John Butler Swann in the modernist style, with influences from indigenous buildings of Arizona and New Mexico. Freylinghuysen and Morris chose furniture by designers of the period.

“It has historic interest in that it differed from the traditional styles of architecture that characterized Berkshire County and also stood out from other Berkshire cottages,” explained Kinney Frelinghuysen, who serves as the museum’s director and is the nephew of Suzy Freylinghuysen. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Ambassadors for a movement
Morris and Frelinghuysen, who married in 1935, both were artists who had spent time in Europe, where they became familiar with the modernist movement. The couple became pioneers in the effort to bring this new generation of art to the United States.

American art at the time was still dominated by more traditional representational realism and illustrative art.

“In the 20s and 30s, modernist art was little known in America,” Kinney Frelinghuysen explained. “George and Suzy were leading figures in introducing it to the U.S.”

Among the various branches of modernism, abstract art was the couple’s strongest interest. Morris was especially influenced by cubism.

In contrast to representational art’s depiction of physical objects and scenes, he added, abstract art is intended to exist on its own terms.

“The elements of an abstract work evoke a response and thoughts and emotions in the viewer without directly representing something else or telling a story,” Freylinghuysen explained.

Morris was a founding member of the group American Abstract Artists, which was organized in the 1930s and sponsored exhibits and events to provide exposure to modern art. He also was an influential writer and served as an editor and art critic of the Partisan Review.

Frelinghuysen, who was also a member of American Abstract Artists, was the first woman to have a painting placed in the permanent collection of the Museum of Living Art in 1938. She also was an opera singer, a member of the New York City Opera and a touring performer before retiring from singing in 1951 to focus on her art.

Morris died in an automobile accident in 1975. Suzy Freylinghuysen continued to live at their home in Lenox until 1988.

Preserving a legacy
Before her death, Frelinghuysen began to make plans to preserve the art she and her husband had created and collected and make it available for educational purposes. She appointed Kinney as her executor and laid the groundwork for establishing a foundation. Kinney and co-trustee Christine Beshar subsequently set up a tax-exempt, charitable foundation to sustain the collection and the property.

Kinney Freylinghuysen, who also is a painter, said it took awhile to determine the best way to handle the estate and art collection. Some of the collection was spread out in homes the couple had elsewhere.

“My aunt gave me general goals, but she didn’t get specific, and we were not sure exactly what she envisioned,” he said. “I had to figure out what to do. Then while walking in the woods I decided that this was such a beautiful place that it should be preserved as it was so the public can enjoy it. That was also a way to display their collection in a way that people could see it in the most appropriate environment.”

Freylinghuysen and his family subsequently moved to Lenox to oversee the project, and the site was opened to visitors in 1998. He now oversees the museum as its executive director and trustee. His wife, Linda, serves as communications director.

In addition to admission fees, memberships and donations, the museum is funded primarily by the endowment was created from his aunt’s estate, Freylinghuysen said.

“The endowment covers our basic expenses and allows us to operate,” he explained.
Although the house and studio are structurally sound, “there is always maintenance that’s required,” he said. “Currently a priority is stabilizing a garden wall that’s collapsing. And there’s a list of projects that will need to be done at some point. But the property is in good condition, and time is on our side.”


Partnering with schools
The museum recently received an $18,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The organization’s new Dorothy C. Radgowski Learning Through Women’s Achievement in the Arts grant program is intended to help historic-house museums that have women at the center of their interpretive stories.

The museum plans to use the grant to develop a project called “Suzy’s Palette: Exploring Abstract Color Relationships with Personal and Mathematical Insights.” Museum staff will work with local educators, with input from parents and students, to create a lesson plan for fourth and fifth grades that will eventually be offered to schools.

Frelinghuysen said the museum has about 2,000 to 2,500 visitors per season. It appeals most strongly to a specific audience with an interest and background in modern art. But he said one of the museum’s goals is to expand its audience.

“In addition to tourists, we’d also like to reach more members of the local community,” he said.
The underlying goal of the foundation and museum is to help people to appreciate the meaning and benefits of modern and abstract art, he explained.

“You might, for example, know that Picasso is an important and prominent artist, without knowing exactly why,” he said. “When people come here and have a chance to stand in front of these works and savor and think about them, they are often moved.”


Visit freylinghuysen.org for more information about the Freylinghuysen Morris House & Studio.