Thomas Lawton, a specialist in Chinese art, has been named director of the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Galley of Art. Lawton, who joined the museum as an associate curator in 1967, has been acting director there since the death last April 3 of Harold P. Stern.

He was one of numerous candidates considered by a three-member search committee chaired by Laurence Sickman, director emeritus of the Nelson Gallery of Kansas City. Henry Trubner of the Seattle Art Museum and Jean Sutherland Boggs of Harvard University served with Sickman.

In accepting their recommendation, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley spoke of Lawton's "scholarly distinction, his connoisseurship in a remarkably wide range of Far Eastern art, his thorough familiarity with the Freer collections, and his demonstrated administrative ability."

Lawton, 46, was born in Somerset, Mass. He received a Phd. from Harvard in 1970. He studied spoken Chinese for three years at the Stanford Chinese Language Training Center and served as an English-language adviser to the National Palace Museum in Taipei before joining the Freer.

In 1970, he became the museum's curator of Chinese art. He was named assistant director the following year. He has published many scholarly articles and a book on Chinese figure painting.

The museum and its collections were given to the United States by Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit financier, in 1906.