Category Archives: A Closer Look

Revisiting Whistler’s Neighborhood: The House with the Copper Door

Cheyne Walk Looking East from Cheyne Row; James Hedderly; photograph; ca. 1870; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Cheyne Walk Looking East from Cheyne Row; James Hedderly; photograph; ca. 1870; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Last fall, the Freer|Sackler’s curator of American art, Lee Glazer, traveled to London with artist Darren Waterston to speak at the Chelsea Arts Club, the headquarters of the Whistler Society. Simon Wartnaby, the society’s president, had invited them to give a lecture on Filthy Lucre, Waterston’s reimagining of Whistler’s Peacock Room in a state of sumptuous decay. In the dinner that followed, Wartnaby mentioned that he had recently seen photographs of Whistler’s funeral. The images prompted him to explore the history of the house at 74 Cheyne Walk, the last of four homes along the river Thames that Whistler occupied over the course of four decades. Below, Wartnaby reveals the house’s little-known history.

74 Cheyne Walk on the day of Whistler’s funeral. Library of Congress, Pennell-Whistler Collection

74 Cheyne Walk on the day of Whistler’s funeral. Library of Congress, Pennell-Whistler Collection

Landlord-Tenant Drama

Known as “the house with the copper door,” the building at 74 Cheyne Walk was designed by architect Charles Robert Ashbee (1863–1942) for himself and his new wife. In fact, Ashbee designed several homes on the fashionable street. The Ashbees lived in no. 74 in 1897 and 1898; Whistler moved there in 1902 and remained in the home until his death the next year.

A synthesis of the Arts and Crafts and Queen Anne styles, Ashbee’s designs were eccentric, but this home was said to be especially so. Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Whistler’s official biographers, reported that Whistler found the home strange and underwhelming. According to the Pennells in their 1921 book The Whistler Journal, the artist reported that 74 Cheyne Walk was “a successful example of the disastrous effect of art upon the British middle classes. When I look at the copper front door and all the little odd decorative touches throughout the house, I ask myself what I am doing there, anyhow? But the studio is fine, I have decorated it for myself, gone back to the old scheme of grey.”

Architect Charles Robert Ashbee. Image courtesy

Architect Charles Robert Ashbee. Image courtesy

The Pennells also provided their own description of the house, whose design they believed to be flawed. The couple described the home’s pitfalls, revealing that the layout proved tricky for an older Whistler to navigate:

It was a ridiculous place anyway, the studio on the ground floor, which was damp, the dining and bed rooms at the top where he had to climb to eat and to sleep until the Doctor stopped him. After that he slept in a front room on a level with the street . . . only one window in it, with panes so small you could hardly look out of it more like a prison cell than a bedroom. The whole affair was tragic.

In addition to its design flaws, the house was next door to a construction site. The noise sent Whistler into a rage. Even worse, the home being built next door was also designed by Ashbee, who had neglected to mention the project when he and his wife rented their home to Whistler. In typical Whistler fashion, he confronted the couple, arguing and protesting by refusing to pay his rent. At the advice of his doctor, Whistler even left the home for a short time. His frail health ended up being a saving grace: the Ashbees only refrained from evicting him because he was ill. Still, the Pennells claimed that the construction next to 74 Cheyne Walk “had a great deal to do with shortening his life.”

Whistler’s Later Work

Several photos of 74 Cheyne Walk were published in 1903, though it is unclear exactly when they were taken. These pictures show the interior of the home and convey what it may have looked like during Whistler’s residency.

The house’s studio space was a redeeming feature. Previously, Whistler had had a studio separate from his residence, in London Mews. Having a studio in his home ­­not only saved him money but also a commute—not unimportant since Whistler had become quite frail by this time.

In the studio at no. 74, Whistler worked on and stored a number of paintings before he died. One was a portrait of George Washington Vanderbilt. Whistler had painted most of the portrait in 1897, adding finishing touches in 1898. However, he never handed the work over to Vanderbilt, insisting it still wasn’t exactly right, and he brought the portrait with him when he moved to 74 Cheyne Walk. The painting was found in Whistler’s studio after his death in 1903. By that time, Vanderbilt had given up on ever receiving the portrait and commissioned one from John Singer Sargent to take its place. The two men remained close, however: Vanderbilt happened to be in London when Whistler died and was a pallbearer at the funeral.

Whistler did begin a painting of Charles Lang Freer in the Cheyne Walk studio. And in the last year of his life, Whistler took great joy in painting Richard Canfield, a rather notorious American casino owner who became a connoisseur of Whistler’s art, amassing a great number of his works in a short period of time.

The Neighborhood

To Whistler, the location and the context of 74 Cheyne Walk, rather than the house itself, held the most significance. Chelsea was a hip, up-and-coming neighborhood in London, and Cheyne Walk was the street to live on. Other notable nineteenth-century figures who resided there included Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and George Eliot.

A map of London from 1868. Cheyne Walk is visible just along the river.

A map of London from 1868. Cheyne Walk is visible just along the river.

Chelsea served as the subject matter, setting, and inspiration for many of Whistler’s artworks. 74 Cheyne Walk wasn’t just his last house: it was the last in his series of homes in Chelsea, and it marked the end of Whistler’s four-decade-long presence in the area. During the Second World War, the building was destroyed, following serious damage by a land mine.

Visit Whistler’s Neighborhood to see a gallery of his artwork and photographs of different locations in Chelsea, as well as a map that puts these visuals in context.


This quotations cited in this post are from Pennell and Pennell’s The Whistler Journal, published in 1921. The National Gallery of Art’s website as well as Daniel Sutherland’s Whistler: A Life For Art’s Sake also informed this post.
Simon Wartnaby is an architectural and art historian and president of the Whistler Society in London.

Revisiting Whistler’s Neighborhood: Freer and Whistler’s Final Days Together

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

“A gentler, nobler, purer soul never entered heaven if such a place exists. His art and his life are one!”
—Charles Lang Freer to his business partner, Frank Hecker, July 18, 1903, one day after Whistler’s death


The Freer|Sackler’s grand reopening on October 14 has prompted reflection upon the relationship between the Freer Gallery of Art’s founder, Charles Lang Freer, and his favorite American artist, James McNeill Whistler. Whistler and Freer were not the typical artist-patron duo. They were close friends who genuinely cared for each other, their relationship extending beyond their shared belief in Whistler’s artistic genius. Freer’s loyalty and respect for Whistler is displayed not only in his glowing comments and enthusiastic collecting, but through his actions in the final days of Whistler’s life and the time just after the artist’s death.

Whistler’s Final Days

Freer and Whistler met in 1890, but it was only in the last few years of the artist’s life that they spent a lot of time together, meeting throughout Europe and especially in London, Whistler’s adopted home. At the time, Whistler lived at 74 Cheyne Walk with his two sisters-in-law, Rosalind and Ethel; he had grown close to his late wife’s family following her death in 1896. Whistler made Rosalind his executrix and sole heir. She worked hard to care for him and, later, to preserve his art historical legacy.

Freer was also a source of support and friendship. Whistler was put on bed rest following a heart attack he had on a 1902 trip to Holland that he and Freer took together. In the aftermath of this incident, Freer was extremely attentive to Whistler’s health and full of praise for the artist:

“Of course, I must stand by the illness regardless of earlier plans. So in the future my movements will depend entirely upon his condition. He is very weak and still brave as a lion. A most extraordinary man!!”
—Freer to Hecker, June 27, 1902

Despite his high praise of Whistler and attentiveness to his condition, Freer was reluctant to recognize how seriously ill Whistler was in the spring of 1903, just months before his death. Freer even talked of sitting for an unfinished portrait that Whistler had begun the year before, when he was in better health:

“Shall you be in Chelsea after June 15th? and if you are in the mood would you be willing to resume work on my Portrait?”
—Freer to Whistler, March 30, 1903

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

By the summer of 1903, Freer was visiting Whistler daily, making a daily trek from his hotel in Grosvenor Square to Whistler’s home in Chelsea. Freer took his ailing friend on carriage rides and sometimes journeyed with him across the river to Battersea Park. The Thames was a fitting setting for Whistler’s final excursions, as the river and its landmarks were ever-present in his life and in his art.

If Freer ever failed to visit, Whistler would call upon him to make sure he would be coming again soon. Whistler sent a number of telegraphs to Freer at the end of his life, each expressing his desire to see his friend daily. Their correspondence illustrates how strong and sweet their friendship had become, intensified, no doubt, by an awareness of mortality. Their letters and telegrams are full of mutual respect and appreciation: an ideal artist-patron relationship. It is clear that Whistler cherished and relied on these visits from Freer and that Freer was always happy to come and see him.

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four." Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four.” Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

On July 16, 1903, Freer and Whistler drove their carriage through St. James and Hyde parks. After the ride, Whistler seemed refreshed; he played dominoes with Ethel and Rosalind before dinner. The next day, Friday, July 17, Freer arrived to pick Whistler up for another ride when he learned that Whistler had collapsed from a fatal blood clot in the brain five minutes prior to his arrival.

The Funeral

After Whistler’s death, Freer worked closely with the artist’s family to make arrangements for the funeral. He even served as a pallbearer. The funeral procession began at Whistler’s house and progressed up the street to St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church, where the artist’s mother, Anna, had worshiped. Whistler was buried next to his wife, Beatrice, at Chiswick St. Nicholas, a churchyard about four miles away from Cheyne Walk.

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. "Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church"; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. “Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church”; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Hundreds of people gathered to memorialize the artist who had become as well-known for his antagonistic feelings toward the British art establishment as he was for his enigmatic portraits and depictions of the Thames. The hordes of people created a spectacle that surely would have entertained Whistler, who delighted in publicity. The following are some highlights from the funeral photographs, now part of the Pennell-Whistler Collection at the Library of Congress.

The hearse travels to Chiswick to lay Whistler to rest on July 22, 1903.

The funeral procession moves towards St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church.

Charles Lang Freer, James Guthrie, John Lavery, Edwin Abbey, Theodore Duret, and George Vanderbilt serve as pallbearers and carry Whistler’s casket down Cheyne Walk. Guthrie was an Irish painter, Lavery a Scottish one, and Abbey an American. Duret was a noted French critic. Vanderbilt, whose family had amassed a fortune in railroads and other business ventures, was American as well. Although he spent his entire professional life in London, Whistler had not a single English artist, critic, or collector in his funeral entourage.

People gather in Chiswick’s St. Nicholas churchyard, where Whistler is laid to rest beside his late wife, Trixie.





The day after Whistler died, Freer had concluded a letter to Frank Hecker by noting: “Need I say that in all things of perfect refinement of beauty the greatest masters are now all gone—at least all known masters.” Freer not only understood Whistler’s pursuit of beauty in his artwork and in his life, but truly believed that Whistler’s art had achieved this “perfect refinement of beauty.” Whistler was all-consumed by thoughts of his legacy in the later years of his life, and Freer’s assessment of him as the last known “greatest master” is one that Whistler surely would have embraced. Freer’s postscript to Whistler’s death was a fitting final tribute from patron to artist, and from one friend to another.

Stay tuned for part two of this exploration of Whistler’s neighborhood.


Daniel E. Sutherland’s biography Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake informed this post.

The Mystery of the Missing Frame

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

It was three hours into my internship at the Freer|Sackler, and I already had a mystery to solve: a Whistler frame. No, artist James McNeill Whistler hadn’t been framed for a crime—though that would’ve been an interesting topic to study. This mystery involves a frame around one of his paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Mystery

Whistler painted Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen in 1864. This was a time in his career when he was first incorporating Japanese elements into his paintings. He was also designing specially decorated frames for these works.

When museum founder Charles Lang Freer purchased The Golden Screen many years later, in 1904, it was surrounded by what Freer’s secretary described as “the old frame.” That frame was sacrificed for the protection of the painting during the shipping process. Freer had a new frame made for the painting: a relatively simple, reeded design that is still known as a “Whistler frame” because the artist adopted it for his work in the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1905, Freer acquired Whistler’s Portrait Sketch of a Lady. It was enclosed in a frame that clearly did not belong with the work: a so-called Oriental Cassetta frame, the type that Whistler had used in the mid-1860s for his Japanese costume paintings (more on that later).

In short, two Whistler paintings in the Freer collection ended up in frames that, as time went on, didn’t seem quite right. They were swapped in the 1980s, mostly because the Oriental Cassetta frame and The Golden Screen seemed to be an excellent—but perhaps not perfect—match. The opening of the frame, for instance, is not exactly the right size relative to the dimensions of that painting.

Linda Merrill, former curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, wondered if the frame currently on The Golden Screen had actually been original to another Whistler painting, Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl, now at the Tate. Freer|Sackler staff had long understood that the frame swap in the 1980s may not have resulted in a perfect fit for either The Golden Screen or Portrait Sketch of a Lady, but the involvement of The Little White Girl was a new development.

Like The Golden Screen, The Little White Girl has had several frames at various points in its history. The frame original to The Little White Girl survives only in a period photograph and shares visible stylistic similarities with the frame currently around The Golden Screen. Both were both created in 1864, and the frame of The Little White Girl was believed to have gone missing. But maybe it actually just found a new home around The Golden Screen. My task was to figure out if this was the case.

"The Golden Screen" with the mystery frame. "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a

“The Golden Screen” with the mystery frame. “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a


The Investigation

To start solving this mystery, it’s helpful to have some context for the frame in question. The Oriental Cassetta style includes Asian motifs, thus allowing the subject matter of the painting to extend onto the frame, the two acting as a complementary pair. In 1864, Whistler designed four such frames to accompany his Japanese paintings, as documented by frame historian Sarah Parkerson: the one currently on Purple and Rose: The Lang Leizen of the Six Marks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the one on the Freer’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain, the one original to The Little White Girl, and the one currently around The Golden Screen.

Whistler frequently reframed his work, especially when he adopted his signature gilded and reeded style of framing in the 1880s. By the 1890s, he began to standardize his framing practices, seeking unity and simplicity when his works were exhibited together. He sought to control everything about how his paintings were exhibited and placed great importance on his frames, especially when organizing a big retrospective in 1892. He often requested permission from collectors to reframe works from earlier in his career. This is what happened with The Little White Girl.

This information provided a promising start, but I needed to keep digging to determine whether The Little White Girl‘s original frame ended up around The Golden Screen. So, I focused on the visual evidence. The most convincing evidence that the paintings had two distinct frames are the subtle differences between the frames’ ornament. This evidence, however, is based on visual comparison, which is limited by the fact that the original frame for The Little White Girl is missing and the photograph that exists is dated, low-quality, and black and white.

“The Golden Screen” and “The Little White Girl” in their Oriental Cassetta frames.

Carved, round designs, or roundels, are present in all of Whistler’s Oriental Cassetta frames. However, there’s variation in how they appear. The surface decoration of The Golden Screen frame pictured above includes eight roundels, one on each side and one in every corner. The designs on the sides include ivy or paulownia leaves in Japanese mon designs; each corner features a different roundel with palm leaves.

In the frame around The Little White Girl in the black-and-white photo, there are only six roundels, one at each corner and on two of the sides. Additionally, the design of the roundels in this frame features small rosettes with fringe, distinct from the ivy or palm leaves. Even with a low-quality image of the frame, these differences from The Golden Screen frame are clear. These differences confirm that the frame original to The Little White Girl is not the one currently on The Golden Screen.

The red circles indicate the location of the roundels on each frame.

Future Investigative Work

Though I confirmed that the frame currently around The Golden Screen was not original to The Little White Girl, my research on this topic is not over. It’s still uncertain if the frame you see today around The Golden Screen is indeed the original, and I’d love to confirm what painting Whistler intended this frame to accompany. I never thought I’d be as interested in what’s around the artwork as in the artwork itself, but my time at the Freer|Sackler shifted my focus. Visit the Freer|Sackler during reopening weekend this October 14–15 to see Whistler’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain proudly sporting one of his four 1864 Oriental Cassetta frames, and see if your focus shifts to the frame, too.

Sarah Parkerson’s dissertation on Whistler’s framing practices, “Variations in Gold: The Stylistic Development of the Picture Frames Used by James McNeill Whistler,” is a resource that was of enormous help to my research and this blog post.

A Look Back at the 2017 Hong Kong Film Festival

Mad World

Twenty years ago this July, rule over the territory of Hong Kong was transferred from Great Britain to China. To mark the occasion, this year’s edition of the Freer|Sackler’s Made in Hong Kong Film Festival began and ended with films made twenty years apart. Though they are distinctly atypical of the island’s film industry, these films highlight through their uniqueness what Hong Kong’s cinema and culture was before the handover and what it has become since.

To begin at the end, the festival closed with a film that shares its title. The first independent film made after the 1997 handover, Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong was, in both style and substance, entirely different from the kinds of movies that defined Hong Kong cinema up to that point. No jaw-dropping martial arts feats by the likes of Jackie Chan or Jet Li. No cool gangsters in sharp suits showering each other with bullets in slo-mo fight scenes a la John Woo’s underworld epics. Instead, Fruit Chan’s film looks at the largely invisible underbelly of the city, where people live in cramped apartments and turn to petty crime simply to pay their bills.

Made in Hong Kong

In its edgy, gritty style and pessimistic plot, Made in Hong Kong (which we presented in a beautifully restored twentieth-anniversary version, created by the Udine Far East Film Festival under Chan’s supervision) embodied the anxiety many people felt about the handover at the time. Would China really honor its promise to allow business as usual to continue for the next fifty years? And what would happen after that?

That anxiety hasn’t gone away, even as the Hong Kong film industry has expanded to take on the mainland China market that the handover opened up. Today’s blockbuster Hong Kong movies are frequently hybrid affairs—no less glamorous than the pre-handover movies, but less distinctly Hong Kong. They are often made by a combination of Hong Kong and mainland talent, aimed at the tastes of Chinese audiences with an eye toward the strict censorship that mainland authorities enforce.

Made in Hong Kong

Much as Made in Hong Kong stood out against the status quo of its day, Mad World, the opening film of this year’s festival, stands out against today’s. The result of a new Hong Kong government initiative to support young filmmakers addressing important issues, Wong Chun’s film plays out far from the city’s New York-on-steroids skyline, telling the story of a poor truck driver trying to care for an adult son suffering from bipolar disorder. Taking on both economic inequality and the stigma associated with mental illness, Mad World is in tune with a number of activist movements that have grown up on the island recently.

Young filmmakers like Wong are part of an emboldened generation more likely to speak their mind than their predecessors. Their outspokenness—from the 2014 Occupy protests, which recently resulted in the imprisonment of three prominent activists, to two newly elected legislators who refused to pledge allegiance to the mainland while being sworn in—may have been on the mind of China’s President Xi Jinping on the handover’s twentieth anniversary. His speech commemorating the occasion warned Hong Kongers against crossing the “red line” of undermining Chinese autonomy.

Mad World

Visiting Hong Kong this spring for Filmart, its annual entertainment business trade show, was a stranger-than-usual experience. In the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center (where, coincidentally, the handover ceremony took place in 1997), upbeat sales reps from the big distribution companies cheerily hawked their latest films in eye-catching booths pulsing with music and film clips. Outside, conversations with local friends inevitably came around to the undercurrents of unrest and unease that seem to be occupying everyone’s minds.

One of Mad World’s themes is that the traditional dream of making it in Hong Kong—that working hard will lead to wealth, designer clothes, and a gorgeous high-rise apartment—is harder than ever to attain. In reality, even successful white-collar workers work punishing hours to barely afford a tiny, dingy flat a hellish commute away from their cubicle in the city’s glittering downtown. And for Hong Kong’s increasingly visible and vocal down-and-out, the situation is much worse. The decision to restore Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong twenty years after its debut couldn’t be more apt: today, it looks prescient.

Kobayashi Kiyochika: A Journey through the Shadows

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Umaya Bridge, ca. 1880

Japanese woodblock prints produced between 1870 and 1930 reflect a period of immense change as Japan opened to the Western world and urban life transformed in response to technological advances. In investigating this period during my summer internship at the Freer|Sackler, one woodblock print artist of the era, Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), drew my interest for his contemplative attention to nightscapes, which differed from the work of both his predecessors and contemporaries. He was the subject of the 2014 Freer|Sackler exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night—a fitting title. Kiyochika’s intricate use of gradated shadow, often punctuated with sources of illumination, in addition to his diversity in subject matter, from moonlit views to Japanese naval battles, makes him a fascinating artist to study.

After consulting with Jim Ulak, the Freer|Sackler’s senior curator of Japanese art, I decided to focus my summer curatorial research project around Kiyochika and his place within printmaking toward the end of the nineteenth century, a period when the old city of Edo became the rapidly modernizing city of Tokyo. My search began with the Open F|S collections and The Museum System (TMS) database, which allowed me to page through some four thousand images online.

Open F|S search results for Kobayashi Kiyochika

Kiyochika came from a family of bureaucrats living under the Tokugawa shogunate, the final feudal Japanese military government that had remained in power since the early seventeenth century. His development as a woodblock print artist coincided with political upheaval of the era. Following the opening of Japan to Western influence by US Commodore Matthew Perry and the eventual overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kiyochika retreated with the shogun from Edo to Shizuoka and began a self-imposed exile.

While Kiyochika established himself in Shizuoka, the capital city of Edo entered a period of dramatic technological change. In addition to the expansion of telegraph wires, the development of a railway system and wheeled vehicles such as the horse-drawn carriage rapidly altered the landscape that Kiyochika had left behind.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, The Great Naval Victory of Chemulpo, 1904

When the artist returned to Tokyo in 1874 after his six-year exile, the city’s once-dark buildings and streets were increasingly illuminated by gas-fueled lights. With the realm of the nightscape now opened to further exploration and experimentation with light and shadow, Kiyochika began in 1876 to produce a series of ninety-three woodblock prints known as Famous Places of Tokyo.

While Kiyochika’s series title draws inspiration from his predecessor Andō Hiroshige’s widely popular series 100 Famous Views of Edo, both artists present markedly different impressions of the landscape of Tokyo. And though Hiroshige’s color palette falls more in line with that of Kiyochika’s contemporaries, who often used the bright light of the day to glorify technological advances, Kiyochika’s attention to night and shadow sought to invert the “invasive” attributes of the new Tokyo. He instead increasingly explored the interplay of technological advances and a growing population in an ever-changing arena of solitude.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, 1880

Devoting twenty-five of his ninety-three prints to nightscapes alone, Kiyochika used the recently transformed Japanese landscape against itself, examining the shadows rather than bright city lights that his contemporaries continued to depict.

Andō Hiroshige, Hatsune Riding Ground at Bakurocho, 1857

To further research Kiyochika’s attention to light and shadow, I consulted the Freer|Sackler’s extensive TMS database and research gathered for a past Freer|Sackler exhibition titled Dream Worlds: Japanese Prints and Paintings from the Robert O. Muller Collection. From these sources, I found that Kiyochika often employed a number of print techniques to visually structure his nightscapes and experiment with sources of light.

As displayed in the print above, Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, Kiyochika was able to create subtle gradations in the night sky by using the bokashi technique. Rather than applying only one ink value to the entire woodblock surface, Kiyochika instead created a variety of shades by adding ink in a gradient to a dampened block. The variety of dark hues created from this technique further attest to Kiyochika’s intricate exploration of nightscapes and the atmospheric impact of variations in light and shadow.

While using the bokashi technique, Kiyochika showed particular attentiveness to rendering the human form in relation to the rapidly transforming environment. As seen within Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, Kiyochika outlined and silhouetted figures against the background as they silently illuminate their respective paths. The placement of figures near the lighthouse adjacent to the Yasukuni Shrine heightens the solemn undercurrent of the print as a depiction of a memorial to Japanese soldiers who had died in service of the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata, ca. 1881

Created using Western techniques, the lighthouse, a physical extension of the Yasukuni Shrine, also subtly commemorates the technological and social changes that initially caused Kiyochika’s own exile and eventual attraction to the woodblock print medium. Cast within an evocatively altered environment and caught between reconciling the past with the present, human figures within the print are unified in form yet isolated in position, quietly populating the scene in which they are placed. In this way, human figures appear as poignant actors as they too are quickly subsumed by the enveloping night sky of the city. This intricate reimagination of familiar Japanese landmarks in uniquely somber contexts distinguishes the work of Kiyochika as a captivating perspective of life in the shadows.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Koromogawa river at Tennōji-shita, ca. 1880

My exploration of Kiyochika’s use of light and shadow began simply with an initial search on Open F|S. For art history researchers who are interested in the Freer|Sackler collection but are unsure of where to start, Open F|S provides a wealth of readily accessible information. I hope that my process of discovering Kiyochika serves as a template for learning by exploring, even from the shadows.

The Mystery of the Rosewater Sprinkler

Rosewater sprinkler, Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1990.1

Little did I know that my first intern assignment at the Freer|Sackler this summer would be worthy of a detective novel. Researching an Indian rosewater sprinkler took me down a few surprising paths and underscored the importance of careful visual analysis.

Perfumes have long been popular in India, and sprinklers containing perfumed water were an important part of courtly ritual. A silver rosewater sprinkler in the Freer Gallery of Art’s collection was originally attributed to an imperial Mughal workshop, circa 1700. But Dr. Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art, believed that the flower motifs displayed on the sprinkler were not consistent with those that adorn Mughal works. She had a hunch that the sprinkler might be from Lucknow—a city in northern India—and produced for the Awadhi court. So, she put me on the case.

A detail of the five-petaled pendant flower that adorns the front and back of the Freer rosewater sprinkler.

To begin, I looked at pictures of colonial era Lucknow to see if floral decoration on buildings throughout the city matched the sprinkler. I soon realized that I was approaching the project incorrectly. Looking at photos of Lucknow from the nineteenth century was not enough. Without any understanding of the history of the city and its rulers, I had no idea how to situate the floral motifs from the sprinkler within Lucknow’s chronology or gauge their importance.

I started to research the Awadhi court so I could construct a timeline of important events. This new direction of inquiry proved far more fruitful. In 1722, the Mughal rulers of India appointed a new governor for the state of Awadh (located in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh). The new governor moved the state’s capital from Lucknow to Faizabad. Over the next few decades, as the power of the Mughal Empire waned, the rulers of Awadh affirmed their own sovereignty and assumed complete control of the state. In1775 a young ambitious ruler, Asaf al-Daula, came to power and returned the Awadh capital to Lucknow. This move launched a flourishing period of art and culture in the region, which lasted until al-Daula’s death in 1797.

A detail of the flowers that adorn the main arch of the Turkish Gate, built in 1784. Note the stylistic similarities and differences between this motif and the one on the rosewater sprinkler.

This information was vital to my investigation. Because al-Daula sponsored high levels of artistic and architectural production, I began to look at the building projects he commissioned in Lucknow. I discovered that the five-petaled pendant flower at the center of the Freer|Sackler’s sprinkler is stylistically similar to flowers that adorn exteriors and interiors of religious and secular buildings throughout Lucknow.

The motif, which occurs in both five- and seven-petaled variations, is most commonly found at the apex of archways above doorways and windows. Prominent examples of the motif can be found at the Bara Imambara complex, which includes the Turkish Gate and the Asfi Mosque. The construction of these buildings began in 1784. While none of the flowers represented in these architectural settings is identical to the one on the sprinkler, the motif seems to have provided opportunity for artistic innovation and variation; for example, each flower motif that appears above the arches on the Turkish Gate varies slightly from its neighbor.

Extending my investigation beyond the flowers, I discovered that the sprinkler’s neck distinctly resembles certain columns found on Lucknow buildings from the late eighteenth century. Like the sprinkler’s spout, these columns are fluted and ribbed. And acanthus leaves typically embellish the columns’ capital and base in the same manner as on the sprinkler.

Columns of the Bara Imambara complex in Lucknow, India, built in 1784.

During my research, I drew heavily on the scholarship of Stephen Markel, senior research curator for South and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In his exhibition catalogue India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, Markel observes that al-Daula’s patronage catalyzed the development of the “mature Lucknow style,” which he describes as predominantly ornamented with stylized flowers bursting into bloom and flowering branches with perching birds. By comparing the luxury objects featured in Markel’s catalogue with the Freer rosewater sprinkler, I realized that the similarities were too striking to be coincidence—the sprinkler undoubtedly belongs to the mature Lucknow style. This information led me to conclude that the sprinkler was produced in Lucknow, probably between 1775 and 1800. Dr. Diamond was correct!

Columns of the Bara Imambara complex in Lucknow, India, built in 1784.

This project was a highly valuable experience as it helped me sharpen and improve my visual analysis skills. Careful examination of hundreds of images of Lucknow’s architecture and luxury goods enabled me to recognize subtle stylistic differences that I may have overlooked previously. I also gained insight into the type of in-depth research required for attributing, dating, and subsequently labeling an object in a collection—skills I will carry forward in future art historical work.

Come check out the rosewater sprinkler on October 14, when the Freer|Sackler reopens to the public. You can find it in Freer gallery 1, where you’ll see my research embedded into the tombstone for the object!

A Closer Look: Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

Artist Xu Bing

The first installation I saw when I stepped through the doors of the Freer|Sackler to start my summer internship was Xu Bing’s Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The piece is both daunting and intriguing, drawing visitors in for a closer look.

Artist Xu Bing


As someone who loves stories, I was fascinated by the idea behind the artwork. The sculpture is based on a Chinese folktale of monkeys who try to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from the branch of a tree to the moon, only to discover that it is a shimmering reflection on the surface of a pool beneath them.

At first the sculpture appears to be a chain of black lines and shapes, but there is more than originally meets the eye. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is an installation of word shapes. Twenty-one laminated wood pieces represent the word “monkey” in twenty-one languages and writing systems, including English, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Braille.


Artist Xu Bing

The words themselves also resemble monkeys, stretched at beginning and end to form long tails and arms. They link together in a large chain that extends down three levels. Perhaps this is why I like the piece so much: wherever you are in the Sackler, you’re never far from the sculpture. It serves as a constant reminder of the way in which art can be displayed effectively in an unusual space.

Artist Xu Bing

I got to know the piece in an even more personal way when I helped create an Instagram story that revolved around Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. This involved planning out a storyboard to decide what text and images would be shown, getting our ideas approved, and then going out into the museum to shoot the sculpture. Getting up close meant I really got to look at the sculpture, picking out the different languages I knew and reading about those that I didn’t.

Artist Xu Bing

The installation will be on permanent display once the Freer|Sackler reopens this fall. Join us on reopening weekend, which kicks off at 5 pm on Saturday, October 14, to visit Monkeys and marvel at its spellbinding design.

A glimpse of an archaeological excavation in Iraq-Kurdistan

This year, my team and I, the Qara Dagh Regional Archaeological project (QDRAP), has begun the excavation of a Late Chalcolithic 3-5 (3900/3850-3100 B.C.) site in the Qara Dagh Valley, in Iraqi-Kurdistan. In 2015, the QDRAP performed an archaeological survey in Qara Dagh, during which approximately 20 sites were identified. The overall aim of our project is to investigate and document the valley’s history and its archaeological relevance by performing surveys and excavations in the area. Ban Qala, one of the most archaeologically promising sites identified during last year’s survey, was chosen for excavation because of the high content of material culture, in the form of sherds (pieces of ceramic), available on the surface. Ban Qala is manly a Late Chalcolithic mound (also called gird or tell).

The step trench that is being excavated this season will help us reconstruct the chronology of the site and enable us to plan future research.

The prime investigators that comprise our team this season are Terri Tanaka from University of California Berkeley and myself. In addition, two archaeologists from the Antiquities Directorate of Sulaymanyah make up the rest our team.

The preparation for a research season requires much preparation and thought. In particular, the logistics have to be worked out in close collaboration with the Antiquities Department of Iraqi-Kurdistan. More specifically, I work with the Antiquities Department of Sulaymanyah, whose director is Kak (Mr.) Kamal Rasheed Raheem.

My contacts with the director begin months before the beginning of the season because he is the foremost source of information and support for all the teams that work in the Sulaymanyah region. He is well informed on all matters concerning excavations and research and is always available to insure that each team has a trouble-free season. Kak Kamal provides all the paperwork necessary to present to local authorities and to travel through the different areas of the country.

In addition, the Antiquities Department helps the teams that work in this area to find lodgings for the mission, a means of transportation, tools needed on the site and, most importantly, facilitates communication with the locals at the site.

This year, the two representatives from the Antiquities Department that have joined us are Kak Amanj and Kak Rebin. They both have experience in archeological digs and their help is extremely valuable for the smooth running of the season. Their love for archaeology and their country’s history is clearly visible in the enthusiasm with which they tackle their work every day.

When I asked Kak Amanj what archaeology means to him, he answered: “It is my dream, my responsibility; it is my job.” Kak Amanj collaborates throughout the year with several international archaeological teams. He began his career in archaeology in 2005. In 2009 he received his BA from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Salahadin in Erbil and since 2012 he works for the Antiquities Directorate in Sulaymanyah.

Kak Rebin, who also studied archaeology at the University of Erbil, has worked with many archaeological teams and has acquired much experience digging. For him, archaeology is an essential part of his life, or as he put it: “like water.”

When I arrived in Sulaymanyah at the end of June, the director, Kak Kamal, and the representatives, Kak Amanj and Kak Rebin, were ready to provide the support needed with the logistics. As always, they were very welcoming, and, already on the first day, I was able to rent a car. This year, our driver is Kak Aziz, who has become an indispensable member of our mission. The day following my arrival, we embarked on a hunt for a house or apartment in Qara Dagh. Ideally, the house needed to be close to the site of Ban Qala. Unfortunately, the search did not go well as the houses found needed much repair, and did not have stable electricity or water. I opted to stay in an apartment in the city of Sulaymanyah, in spite of the fact that this would require a 40-minute daily drive to the site.

On the third day, Kak Amanj and Kak Aziz, accompanied me to the local bazaar where I could acquire tools needed for the mission in the many specialized stores that can be found this typical marketplace.

Walking through the bazaar is an interesting experience; the many alleys that form the bazaar tend to intimidate those who do not know how to navigate them.

While going through the bazaar, for example, I lost track of the course that we had followed to get to the hardware section and, had I not been accompanied, would have had a difficult time trying to find it. Now, after several days spent exploring this fascinating “shopping center,” I have become acquainted with the different sections and regularly visit the fruit and vegetable section to buy the daily items needed for cooking. For the people of Sulaymanyah, the bazaar is very important. It is alive with merchants hawking their wares and customers bargaining prices. As Kak Amanj happily exclaimed after we had bought what we needed: “The Sulaymanyah bazaar is great because you can find everything you need.”

The preparation for the beginning of the excavation took roughly one week. On the first day of the actual dig, Terri, Kak Amanj, Kak Rebin, Kak Aziz and I started our workday by leaving the house at 4 am to go to the archaeological site of Ban Qala.

Leaving early allows us to avoid the intense heat (45 degrees Centigrade\ 113 Fahrenheit or more) that comes later in the day. For the same reason, we must end our fieldwork around midday. On the field, we take short breaks, starting with breakfast at 8:30.

Breakfast for the locals of Kurdistan is generally a simple meal. Ours consists of tomatoes from Aziz’s garden, cucumbers, onions, bread, and fruit bought at the bazaar and the sweet tea for which the Middle East is famous. Kak Aziz prepares a very savory tea. As it turns out, his secret is to mix different types of teas. This practice, as I came to learn, is common in this area. The infusion of different types of tea to achieve the intensity and flavor desired makes the experience of drinking tea unique because the taste will depend on the expertise of whom prepares it.

Our mornings are always busy. Opening the step trench is heavy work and the heat sometimes slows down the shoveling, picking and sifting of the material recovered.

To provide some shade from the sun, we have installed a tent that covers the excavation area. Even so, it is impossible to spend too much time exposed to the heat and we try to protect ourselves as much as we can.

In spite of the heat, Kak Amanj, Kak Aziz and Kak Rebin are always in a good mood and chat about different things as we work. They speak Sorani and, although Terri and I are still learning the language, we can understand some parts and others are translated for us. Listening to them and laughing with them makes our workday much more pleasant and distracts us from the heat and fatigue.

Around noon, as we leave Ban Qala, we are tired but have a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

As we travel and leave behind the beautiful landscape of the valley, we encounter Kak Salam, the guard for the site whose job is to keep an eye on the excavation so that it is not damaged or disturbed. His son sleeps overnight in a little house that they built in only a few hours at the beginning of the dig.

They perform an important duty, as goats, cows and sheep that pasture on the land near the excavation often “visit” the site. This area is the animals’ home but, because of the importance of our study, we have to prevent their presence on the mound.

When Terri and I arrive at the apartment in the afternoon, there is still much work to do. After spending our mornings excavating, we spend our afternoons processing our findings and organizing our excavation logs. Most of the time is spent washing pottery and stone tools covered with dirt and it is during this time that we are filled with excitement as we find painted pottery, scrapers made of colorful stones and other items.

Finally, after washing and processing documents, we head towards the bazaar, mainly to buy fruit, bread and vegetables. The bazaar is always busy and, as we make our way through the tight alleys and streets, there is always something different and interesting to observe. In the few days that we have been here, we have already established our favorite fruit vendors and bread shops. Sometimes, when the day has been particularly tiring, we decide to splurge and have dinner out, mostly trying some of the local food. The street food is particularly delicious!

Nighttime finds us getting ready for bed and, unwinding from the day’s stress, we begin to laugh as we talk about the funny aspects of our daily life here. Terri, for example, noticed one evening when she pulled up her sleeve that the contrast in color between her hand and her arm was extreme and, for some reason, this struck us as quite hilarious. We could not stop laughing! Another time, we forgot our canteens for the cold water in the freezer and the next day we found them broken, with icicles protruding from the openings. When we finally turn the lights out, we are so tired that we literally drop on our beds and are dead to the world until the alarm clock rings again at three in the morning!

The 2017 excavation season of Ban Qala was generously supported by donations through the Rust Family Foundation.

Pic of the Week: Docents at Work, Kids at Play

FS Docent tour with third graders from Inspired Teaching

FS Docent tour with third graders from Inspired Teaching


We recently hosted third graders from DC school Inspired Learning. Led by our wonderful Docents, these young ones toured the Sackler. We can’t begin to express how thankful we are for our docents. If you’re interested in joining the Docent team, fill out the form here.

Chinese New Year: Painted Clay Sculptures Celebrate Beijing Opera Characters


Meet Hongkui Lin, a craftsman of painted clay opera masks. On Sunday, February 5, watch him demonstrate his more than one-hundred-year-old craft at our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration. Lin is visiting from Beijing, and his demonstration will be a rare opportunity for Americans to experience this popular Chinese craft.

As this video shows, the process for making the clay masks is more complex than it might seem at first glance. Like a complicated recipe, one mask takes a minimum of sixteen steps, from carving models on paper to applying base paint and adding enamel.

Lin selects colors to reflect aspects of each character’s identity and personality. Red often represents loyalty, for instance, while black symbolizes integrity. Colors also may signify age. Pink is reserved for elders, and if your character is immortal, it most likely will bear silver or gold.

After watching Lin’s demonstration, you may be inspired to watch thirty-minute opera performances by students from the Beijing Opera Art’s College at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Or, you may be tempted to make your own opera mask in the museum’s ImaginAsia classroom.

Seating will be first come, first served, and all activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.