Category Archives: From the Collections

Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae

Mausoleum of Cyrus: view from the south; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; cyanotype from glass plate negative; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.1543p

Mausoleum of Cyrus: view from the south; Ernst Herzfeld; Iran, 1905–28; cyanotype from glass plate negative; Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FSA A.6 04.GN.1543p

“I am Cyrus, son of Cambyses, who founded the Persian Empire and was King of Asia. Grudge me not this monument.”

According to the Greek historian Strabo (circa 64 BCE–21 CE), these words were inscribed on the tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire of Iran (reigned 550–530 BCE). Before his untimely death, Cyrus laid the foundation of the ancient world’s first empire in his birthplace, Anshan (Parsa), in southwestern Iran. He had overthrown the Medes, a kingdom in northwestern Iran, and had captured Sardis, the capital of the Lydian kingdom in Anatolia. In 539 BCE, Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Jewish community to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the second temple. At the same time, he chose Pasargadae as the heart of his multilingual, multifaith empire and transformed it into a magnificent symbol of Achaemenid power. The site also became Cyrus’s final resting-place.

Located in the fertile plain known as the dasht-i murghab, or “plain of the water bird,” Pasargadae comprised palaces, gardens, pavilions, and a number of structures with not-yet-identified functions. Although several classical Greek authors mention Pasargadae, the site gradually fell into neglect after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in 330 CE and was largely forgotten in favor of nearby Persepolis, built by Darius I (522–486 BCE). In the early thirteenth century, materials from the palace grounds were used to transform Cyrus’s mausoleum into a mosque. Western travelers to the site after the fifteenth century referred to the structure as a woman’s burial place using its local designation, “Tomb of the Mother of Solomon.” Although some scholars suggested the tomb might be Cyrus’s, it was not until 1908 that the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) devoted his dissertation to Pasargadae and proved conclusively that it was the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

Heart of an Empire focuses on Herzfeld’s discovery of Pasargadae and explores his meticulous work to restore the site’s historical and archaeological importance. See it tomorrow when it debuts in the Freer|Sackler.

NYFW: Catwalk-Worthy Fashions in Our Collections

New York Fashion Week has officially hit the runways. As top designers’ latest work is swooned over and scrutinized, let’s look at a few catwalk-worthy styles from Asian art history.



As documented in such publications as Fruits magazine, Japanese street style pushes boundaries a bit further each year. Going back a few centuries proves that Japanese fashion has a history of catching eyes. There would be no missing the girl in an orange vermilion dress, painted somewhere between 1661 and 1673. Compare her ensemble to the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century silk costumes made for No performances. Gold is seen extensively in No costumes, used to reflect light and highlight the actors’ slow, stylized movements.



Long, flowing robes also were en vogue in China, as seen in these tiny but detailed figurines dating between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.



A few hundred years later, noblewomen wore coats over their floor-length robes. Dating to the mid-1800s, this summer surcoat is patterned with encircled dragons. The number of these roundels—and of the dragons’ claws—let everyone know the high status of the woman within the silk garment. The woman in the nineteenth- or early twentieth-century portrait posed in her coat, which she paired with a headpiece made of vivid kingfisher feathers. Speaking of which: Check back for a post on fabulous accessories in our collections.

Celebrate the Year of the Monkey

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Calling visitors of all ages: Ring in the Year of the Monkey at our second annual Lunar New Year Celebration on Saturday, February 6, 11 am–4 pm. Join us to explore the museum, take family-friendly tours of the suspended sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, and enjoy dance performances by the Madison Chinese Dance Academy. Plus: ribbon dancing, mask making, calligraphy, photo booth fun, and Lunar New Year resolutions!

About the Artwork

Chinese artist Xu Bing created Monkeys Grasp for the Moon specifically for the Freer|Sackler. Each of the sculpture’s twenty-one pieces represents the word “monkey” in one of a dozen different languages and writing systems, including Indonesian, Urdu, Hebrew, and Braille. The work is based on a Chinese folktale in which a group of monkeys attempt to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from a tree branch to the moon—only to discover that it is just a shimmering reflection in a pool of water.

Listen to Xu Bing chat about the work during its initial installation at the Freer|Sackler (click on “Interview with the Artist”).

Six Reasons to See “Sōtatsu” Before it Closes

Detail, Waves at Matsushima; Tawaraya Sōtatsu, (act. ca. 1600–40); pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, and silver on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1906.231–232 Detail, Waves at Matsushima; Tawaraya Sōtatsu, (act. ca. 1600–40); pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, and silver on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, F1906.231–232


Sōtatsu: Making Waves has done just that. A Wall Street Journal writer claimed to almost “hear the splash of waves swirling” upon entering the landmark exhibition. Noting that ours is the “first exhibition outside of Japan devoted to one of the country’s masters of traditional ink works on paper,” Hyperallergic described Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s works as “mesmerizing compositions that still shine centuries after their creation.” And the Washington Post acknowledged that the Japanese master’s innovations have continued to influence his followers, including “countless artists working in the art deco style in the early 1900s.”

Still need a reason to see the exhibition before it closes on Sunday afternoon? Maybe one of these will convince you:

  1. Imagine if the works of Shakespeare were only accessible to the wealthy and elite. That’s how works of art were treated in Japan before Sōtatsu (active circa 1600–1640) came along. He not only created gorgeous masterpieces, but he also made them available to the general public.
  2. Sōtatsu is one of the forefathers of the Rinpa style, a movement that once defined Japanese art worldwide. He’s also known for advancing the painting technique known as tarashikomi (dropping in). In these works, paint is dropped into a still-wet background to create delicate details such as flower petals and water ripples.
  3. Sōtatsu’s designs echo within the works of luminaries such as Klimt and Matisse, making his 400-year-old paintings appear unexpectedly contemporary.
  4. Three of his paintings, The Gods of Wind and Thunder (Kenninji Temple, Kyoto), Lotus and Waterfowl (Kyoto National Museum), and Channel Buoys and the Barrier Gate (Seikadō Art Museum, Tokyo), have been designated national treasures by the Japanese government.
  5. In celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Rinpa art—and the thirtieth anniversary of Super Mario Bros.—Nintendo had an artist create a version of The Gods of Wind and Thunder starring Mario as Raijin, the god of thunder, and Luigi as Fujin, the god of wind.
  6. Importantly, one of the screens in the exhibition is full of cats.

Join us this weekend to bid adieu to this remarkable show.

The Cosmic Buddha’s New Dimensions

The Cosmic Buddha, centerpiece of the forthcoming exhibition Body of Devotion, has transcended time and space. The limestone sculpture started its life in China during the Northern Qi dynasty (550–77), most likely carved by a team of craftsmen. From that point forward, little is known about the Cosmic Buddha’s history until it appeared on the art market in Beijing more than a millennium later, in 1923. Freer Gallery curator Carl Whiting Bishop spotted the sculpture and bought it for the museum.

Covering the sculpture, which is formally titled Buddha Vairochana with the Realms of Existence, are detailed narrative scenes representing moments in the life of the Historical Buddha. Scenes of the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world, also are etched into the sculpture’s robe. Together, the sculpture’s many images provide a rare glimpse into early Chinese symbolic visions of the Buddhist cosmos.

In earlier times, the only way to capture the Cosmic Buddha’s rich content was through photographs or rubbings, impressions in black ink on white paper made directly on the sculpture’s surface. Today, anyone with a computer can zoom in on its intricate details. With help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the Cosmic Buddha now exists as a three-dimensional model, enabling scholars to study the work as never before and providing worldwide access to this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture.

The Cosmic Buddha’s next journey is from the Freer to the Sackler, where it will appear in Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D when it opens this Saturday. The interactive installation explores not only the work itself, but also the evolving means and methods of studying sculpture, from rubbings and photographs to the technological possibilities of today.

Making Musical Waves

Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21

Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21

We owe the emergence of modern music for the koto, a Japanese zither, to a temple-court musician named Hosui. In the mid-1600s, Hosui was dismissed by the famously capricious nobility in Kyoto for giving an unacceptable performance.

Hosui ultimately prevailed. After resettling in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), he taught blind commoners how to play the exclusive court music styles and instruments that were previously restricted to Buddhist priests and Confucian scholars. Among Hosui’s students was the shamisen player Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614‒1685), who pioneered a large and influential repertoire of secular koto music that is still performed today.

More than three hundred years after his death, Yatsuhashi’s tomb in Kyoto is marked by a commemorative stone. His accomplishments in music mirror those of the Japanese artist Sōtatsu, who is credited with bringing the visual arts of the court to a much wider public.

You can hear a few of of Yatsuhashi’s signature works and several of their later incarnations performed by local koto artist Miyuki Yoshikami and flutist Amy Thomas. Their free performance is held on Saturday, January 30, at 1 pm in the ground-level pavilion of the Sackler Gallery. While you’re here, take a last look at Sōtatsu: Making Waves before it closes on January 31.

Princess: Unleashed

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

For the first time since 1904, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain has left the Peacock Room. James McNeill Whistler’s painting of Anglo-Greek beauty Christina Spartali dressed in a Japanese kimono has hung over the mantelpiece in the Peacock Room for more than a century. Now it is on display in the Sackler as part of the exhibition The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art.

The painting has presided over the Peacock Room for so long that it may come as a surprise to learn it was not originally a site-specific work. It was an exhibition picture, painted in 1864 and displayed at the Paris Salon the following year. Critics at the time generally liked the work, but they described it as a “pastiche chinoise” since parts of it seemed to imitate the decorations found on Chinese porcelain.

British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland acquired the painting around 1872. When he moved to a new home in 1875, he hung it over the mantel in the dining room, which had been redecorated by the architect Thomas Jeckyll to showcase Leyland’s extensive collection of blue-and-white Chinese pots. Leyland asked Whistler to offer suggestions about the color scheme of the woodwork. As the artist began to make a few modest changes, he realized Jeckyll’s designs clashed with his princess. Whistler was soon carried away with covering the walls, shutters, and ceiling with peacock motifs. The result was the beautiful Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room—and the end of his friendship with Leyland.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

After Leyland died in 1892, his art collections were sold at auction. William Burrell, a collector from Glasgow, Scotland, bought La Princesse at that time. He sold it to Charles Lang Freer in 1903, shortly after Whistler’s death. The following year, Freer loaned the painting to Whistler’s memorial retrospective held in Boston, where the princess hung in a place of honor at the end of a long gallery. Later that spring Freer acquired the entire Peacock Room from Blanche Watney, who had purchased Leyland’s house, and he shipped the room to his own residence in Detroit in the summer of 1904. He once again hung La Princesse over the mantelpiece, where it remained when the Peacock Room was installed in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1920.

While the Freer Gallery is temporarily closed for renovation, La Princesse is liberated from her high perch. Enjoy this opportunity to take a closeup look at Whistler’s work before the princess once again returns to her lofty position, perhaps to gaze down on us for another hundred years.

Sōtatsu: Pieces of the Past

<em>Screen with Scattered Fans</em>; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24

Screen with Scattered Fans; Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40); Japan, early 17th century; six-panel folding screen; color, gold, and silver over gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1900.24

Stories about looting historic tombs and architectural sites are common fare in today’s media. Given the images that accompany these updates, of crudely severed elements hacked from pillaged ruins or plundered gravesites, the idea of considering cultural “fragments” in a positive light is akin to wearing mink at a PETA convention. The concept is is rightly tainted by associations with destruction and misappropriation.

But not all fragmenting is fundamentally destructive. Our current exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves (through January 31, 2016) is incomprehensible without an understanding of what could be called Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s (active circa 1600–40) strategy of fragmentation. Instead of theft and pillage, his process more closely resembled collaging—taking scraps from here and there and arranging them in a way that simultaneously displaced and expanded the original meaning.

Sōtatsu worked in a period of incredible social change. Though the population of Kyoto didn’t understand it at the time, a national solidification was taking place in the early seventeenth century. Japan was becoming the defined country we know today, emerging from a time when region, rather than nation, was the framework of identity.

This new national unity required a shared past. The world of classical literature—poetry, tales of adventure and romance—previously had been the purview of the aristocracy. Learning the classics, creating an interpretive framework for their revered words, and creating imagery to enhance those words were all elite activities—that is, until society began to come apart.

From his beginnings as a commoner, a fan painter, and an illuminated manuscript specialist, Sōtatsu eventually gained access to the highest levels of “the old order” (having the emperor’s consort as a patron, for instance)—a remarkable feat. With that access, he was able to view the artworks that had been sequestered, allowing him to pick apart Japan’s past and then energize and distribute it to a far more diverse audience.

Sōtatsu was not going at some beautiful stucco wall relief with a pickaxe. But he and his studio mates were doing an extraordinary amount of foraging, accessing largely out-of-reach collections and seeing one-of-a-kind paintings—often long, horizontal historical or literary narratives. They copied episodes depicted in such works and reinterpreted them onto folding fans, some of which were surely sold out of Sōtatsu’s Kyoto shop, the Tawaraya. He and his fellow artists also produced a folding screen whose surface was decorated with such fans, swirling as if they were being carried away on a rushing stream.

Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans

Detail, Screen with Scattered Fans

Our current ability to arrange pieces of an art historical past into chronologies of artist, style, culture, and so forth gives us a window onto the primary works that Sōtatsu studied. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century paintings, which we now know in their completeness, are often accessible in museums today. But how many who viewed Sōtatsu’s repurposed snippets in the 1600s would have seen the original works from which they were extracted? Your chance of knowing his sources—via art history books and exhibition catalogues—is exponentially greater than that of a typical townsperson in Sōtatsu’s day.

So what did Sōtatsu’s contemporaries make of these fragmented images? My guess is that many simply saw an affectation of the past: a brush with the classics, an obscure recounting of the history of a temple or shrine, or a vaguely generalized image of warriors riding off to battle, for example. Sōtatsu’s folding fans served as portable image quotations from the past, allowing ancient narratives to float across social boundaries.

In many cases, fragmenting has resulted in losing the thread of a cultural history, at least for a while. But in Sōtatsu’s case, it offered up bite-size bits of a past that many, many more people were able to appreciate than ever before.

Another period of great dispersal or fragmentation of Japanese art occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Revisit Bento in the coming weeks to learn more about that amazing period.

A Painting That Doesn’t Exist

Three Female Figures, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–74, pen on brown paper with white heightening, Colby College Museum of Art, The Lunder Collection, 007.2009

Crouching Figure: Study for The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–70, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.139

Draped Figure at a Railing, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–70, black and white crayon on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.130

Draped Female Figure, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.133

Draped Figure Standing, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.136

Woman with Parasol, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, F1902.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.138

Girl with Cherry Blossom, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–78, oil on canvas, The Courtauld Art Gallery, London. Private Collection (on loan to The Courtauld Gallery)

The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre, James McNeill Whistler, 1879, oil on canvas, frame designed and decorated by the artist, ca. 1872–73, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Mrs. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels through the Patrons of Art and Music, 1977.11

Opening Saturday, The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art is an exhibition about a painting that doesn’t exist. The saga began in 1867, when American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) received a commission from a promising new patron, the nouveau riche shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland (1832–1892). Leyland paid the artist to create a “symphony in white,” meant to be the fourth in a series of works in which Whistler experimented with idealized color and form. For ten years, Whistler painted and repainted the painting, which he titled The Three Girls—but he was never satisfied with it. As his mother would explain to Leyland, her son had tried too hard to make the painting “the perfection of art” and was thwarted by his own lofty ideals.

By 1876, Whistler was involved in another large project for Leyland: the redecoration of his patron’s dining room, eventually titled Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. If Whistler had completed The Three Girls, it would have hung there, opposite his Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (Princess from the Land of Porcelain). But when painter and patron quarreled over the extent of Whistler’s work on the Peacock Room, Whistler destroyed the still-unfinished canvas of The Three Girls. In its place, he painted a mural of two fighting peacocks on the south wall of Leyland’s dining room, later known as “Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room.” As a final affront to Leyland, Whistler repurposed the frame that would have surrounded The Three Girls for another work, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frithly Lucre (The Creditor), which depicts Leyland morphing into a monstrous peacock.

As suggested by Whistler’s sketches and related paintings above, The Three Girls would have been a remarkable work. Fortunately, Whistler left a significant paper trail that allowed our two guest curators, Linda Merrill and Robyn Asleson, to reconstruct the story of the fugitive painting. A rescued fragment of the original canvas, numerous figure studies and preparatory sketches, and the frame that Whistler originally intended to enclose it are among the tantalizing clues that hint at the masterpiece that might have been.

Part of Peacock Room REMIX, The Lost Symphony is the second in a series of exhibitions staged alongside contemporary painter Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, an immersive installation that reimagines Whistler’s Peacock Room as a resplendent ruin, a visualization of the consequences of creative and monetary excess. The works on view in The Lost Symphony allow us to imagine another ending to the story and trace Whistler’s path to aesthetic mastery. Yet, the destruction of the never-completed picture and the afterlife of its repurposed frame also illuminate Whistler’s less-rarified preoccupation with patronage, payment, and professional reputation—the very themes at the heart of Filthy Lucre.


Egyptian balls

See more of these Egyptian balls on Open F|S.

Now, THESE are powerballs. Made of glass in Egypt, each one dates to the Ptolemaic dynasty or Roman period (305 BCE–14 CE). That’s not 1.5 billion years, but we’ll take 2,300! We’re not sure what they were for, though women may have used the larger ones to cool their hands after the balls soaked in melted snow.