Category Archives: From the Collections

Whistler’s Watercolors: Sneak Peek

James McNeill Whistler's watercolor "Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel"

James McNeill Whistler’s watercolor “Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel”

Senior Scientist Blythe McCarthy, Curator Lee Glazer, and I are undertaking a technical examination and analysis of James McNeill Whistler’s watercolors, based on the fifty-two watercolor paintings—the largest number of Whistler watercolors in any one location—in our collection. This study involves visual analysis, art historical research, and scientific study using a number of analytical techniques. It will culminate in an exhibition of Whistler watercolors in 2018. Until then, here is a sneak peek of some of our findings thus far.

Hot or Not?
The most commonly used supports for watercolor painting in the nineteenth century were wove paper and paperboard. Whistler used both. In fact, while Whistler was quite innovative in his paper choices for etchings, he appears to have been much more traditional in those he used for watercolors.

His preferred papers were manufactured with textures that can change and enhance watercolor’s appearance. During the nineteenth century, these surfaces were sold with the following designations: hot press, cold press, and rough. “Hot press” refers to paper that has been run through hot rollers to impart a very smooth, flattened surface. “Cold press”—also called “not,” as in “not hot pressed”—has been run through cold rollers, which partially smooth the rough surface of the paper fibers. “Rough” indicates a paper that has only been air-dried, with no pressing of the surface to flatten or smooth it.

Below are photographs of three Whistler watercolors, taken through the microscope at five times magnification. Can you see the differences in the surface textures?

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Sanding the Beach
Whistler used many of the techniques discussed in watercolor manuals of his day, including rewetting and blotting, rubbing and sanding. We found evidence of several techniques in the section of his painting Southend: The Pleasure Yacht highlighted below. First, Whistler painted a blue wash. He then sanded the paper, which removed the blue from the high spots but left the color in small depressions. Lastly, he painted another, drier wash of a sandy color, which sits on the high points of the paper. The fibers in this worked area appear rough and lifted.

southend

Paper Source
Watermarks, as seen in modern currency, are thinner areas of the paper that look transparent when held up to a light. About half of Whistler’s watercolors are mounted to cardboard supports, so it’s nearly impossible to see if there are watermarks in the paper. Using computed digital X-radiography, though, we were able to read a watermark on one of our mounted watercolors. Though it’s difficult to see, the watermark revealed below reads: “J. Whatman/Turkey Mill/189?” It tells us that the paper was made by James Whatman, a preeminent British papermaker of the eighteenth century.

watermark

Outfit Change
We examined all of the watercolors using a technique called reflected infrared photography, which can enhance and reveal underdrawings and reworking. Using filters to block visible and ultraviolet light from entering the camera, we can generate an image of reflected infrared light. Carbon and other pigments absorb this light and appear darker than normal. The image below shows a change Whistler made while painting the skirt in his portrait of Milly Finch.

milly-finch

Want to know more? Read a past post on Whistler’s drawings, and stay tuned for more conservation insights as this project moves forward.

National Cat Day: Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net

Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net; Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864); Japan, Edo period, 1855; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Purchase—Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F1995.17

Courtesan Beneath a Mosquito Net; Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864); Japan, Edo period, 1855; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Purchase—Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F1995.17

This scene of a courtesan emerging from a mosquito net as her cat returns her gaze alludes to a well-known episode from the eleventh-century Japanese work The Tale of Genji. Prince Genji’s wife, the Third Princess, was concealed from public view, as was the custom among women of high status. When her cat pushed aside a bamboo blind, however, the princess was revealed to the courtier Kashiwagi, and thus began a secret affair between the two.

Inscribed at the top of the painting is a poem by Honda Jinzaburo (1781–1861), whose pen name was Tenmei Rojin. The poem alludes to the source of mosquito nets—the vendors from Omi near Lake Biwa—and to the trysts of courtesans beneath the netting on steamy summer nights:

No matter whom
the maiden meets
under the omi net,
her arm shows the mark
of a mosquito’s stinger.

Translation by John Carpenter

Chinamania in 3D

3d

Take a spin with 3D versions of the porcelains in Chinamania. Smithsonian Digitization scanned more than sixty of our Chinese porcelains using turntable photogrammetry and laser arm scanning. Click through to view, download, and—if you have a 3D printer handy—create your own versions of these gorgeous blue-and-whites.

Want to know more about the exhibition? Here’s the overview from Lee Glazer, our curator of American art:

Contemporary sculptor Walter McConnell explores the West’s enduring obsession with Chinese ceramics through multiple lenses: museum collections, digital technology, and his own artistic vision. McConnell’s monumental porcelain sculptures are juxtaposed with export wares from China’s Kangxi period (1662–1722) similar to those that once decorated the Peacock Room in London. These historical porcelains, in turn, inspired the artist to create a new work based on 3D-printed replicas. (McConnell’s interest in replication and the serialized mass production of ceramic forms began more than a decade ago, after he visited China. His encounters with the kilns and factories at Jingdezhen prompted him to consider the history of China as an enduring resource for ceramic production.)

Created from digital scans that can be reprinted over and over, these replicas further underscore the intersection of art, technology, commerce, and mass production that has always defined Chinamania.

National Fossil Day: A Mysterious Mammoth Carving

Possibly bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha

Possibly bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha

In almost every regard, this Chinese figurine is perplexing and intriguing. Until recently, it was dated to 1025, based on an inscription carved into the base. Yet, no figural ivory carvings have been documented from the Song dynasty (960–1279). Was the inscription added legitimately or by an unscrupulous modern dealer?

The intricacy of this carving and its exaggeratedly long body and hands suggest a date of the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The figure is similar to Dehua (blanc de chine) porcelain figures made during this period. Radiocarbon test results on the ivory do not tell much, since the carver used fossil mammoth ivory more than 32,000 years old.

fossil2

Jades for Life and Death

jades-group-5

Jade has been one of China’s most highly valued materials for millennia, and we happen to have some of the world’s finest Chinese jades in our collections. Now, more than 250 jades produced during the Chinese Stone Age (ca. 5000―1700 BCE) are globally accessible through our new online catalogue Jades for Life and Death. Most of these works were produced by the Neolithic Liangzhu culture (ca. 3300―2250 BCE), the most prolific and advanced center for jade production in ancient China.

Why “life and death”? The title refers to ways that Chinese people used jade thousands of years ago. Pieces of jewelry—beads and pendants, for example—show that the ancient Chinese donned jade items as accessories. Then there are jade ritual disks (bi) and tubes (cong) that have been discovered at Liangzhu burial sites. Sometimes, the tubes had been arranged in a circle around the deceased’s body; sometimes, the disks were placed near the body and stacked below its feet.

More than two hundred objects were discovered in this Liangzhu tomb, including the jade disks known as bi.

More than two hundred objects were discovered in this Liangzhu tomb, including the jade disks known as bi.

Peruse Jades for Life and Death to marvel at these objects and to learn about their histories. You can find label text that our curators have written about the jades, as well as a host of related materials. Archival purchase records, for example, trace the objects’ journeys to the Freer|Sackler. Several essays delve into such topics as how museum founder Charles Lang Freer gathered this collection and the culture that created them. Research spanning the twentieth century reveals how the understanding of our jades shifted with each archaeological discovery in China.

And there’s more to come. This book is only the first in a series of five volumes we have planned about our jades. The next one, scheduled to come out in fall 2017, is dedicated to jades of the early Bronze Age, chiefly the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600―1050 BCE).

Grey and Gold

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

James McNeill Whistler stayed in Pourville-sur-Mer, a former French fishing village, for several months in 1899, composing a number of works. He completed many of the paintings in September or October, after most vacationers would have returned home. Grey and Gold: High Tide at Pourville exudes the off-season melancholy Whistler described in an 1896 letter to his sister-in-law: “A seaside place after the season is like a theatre in the daytime—there is an uncanny sort of loneliness about it.”

Notes from the Desert

Izmat, a personal friend of Gill's, stares down from a tree. Her gaze challenges the viewer. Izmat, from the series Notes from the Desert; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2010; gelatin silver print, 61 × 76.2 cm; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2014.16

Izmat, a personal friend of Gill’s, stares down from a tree, challenging the viewer’s gaze. Izmat, from the series Notes from the Desert; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2010; gelatin silver print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries; S2014.16

Tomorrow, we debut Notes from a Desert, comprising recollections and photographs by contemporary artist Gauri Gill. Since the late 1990s, Gill (born 1970) has been photographing marginalized communities in the remote desert region of western Rajasthan, India.

In 2003, she was asked to participate in a Balika Mela, a fair that provides girls the opportunity to learn and play in a safe environment. Gill led workshops teaching basic photography and darkroom techniques. Reminiscent of the traditional itinerant photographer who would travel from village to village with his equipment, Gill also invited the girls to have their portraits taken in a makeshift studio. She gathered backdrops and props from local sources and asked the sitters to choose how and with whom they wanted to be photographed.

From the more than eighty portraits, Gill chose only a few to be printed at close to life-size; three are on display at the Sackler, including the one below. With a direct gaze and slightly clenched hands, Kanta conveys a sense of determination and cautious self-awareness. The spare use of props, plain backdrops, and natural desert light emphasize Gill’s subjects, while the large scale of the black-and-white prints asserts an iconic, self-empowered status.

Kanta, from the series Balika Mela; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 2003–10; inkjet print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2013.6

Kanta, from the series Balika Mela; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 2003–10; inkjet print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2013.6

A key figure in Gill’s work in Rajasthan is Izmat, a single mother she has known for nearly two decades. Gill repeatedly photographed Izmat, whom the artist has described as a “strong woman of tremendous character despite having lived a very difficult life,” and her two daughters, Jannat (1984–2007) and Hooran. In the portrait at top from the series Notes from the Desert (1999–present), Izmat’s face emerges from the dark foliage of a tree set against the blinding light of the desert sky. Barely perceptible in the stark landscape and shot from below, she challenges the viewer’s gaze.

Gill frequently revisits her vast archive of negatives and composes different series around a central theme. In 2011, she gathered under the title Jannat forty-four photographs and eight facsimiles of letters that she and Izmat had exchanged. This group of fifty-two prints, one for each week of the year, is a poignant memorial to Izmat’s daughter who died at twenty-three. A portrayal of Jannat unfolds through glimpses of the joy, pain, and tenderness of everyday life.

Untitled, from the series Jannat (1984–2007); Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2007; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2014.15.1–52

Untitled, from the series Jannat (1984–2007); Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2007; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2014.15.1–52

Witness these images in person when Notes from the Desert opens tomorrow. Visit between 2 and 4 pm for a chance to meet Gill and ask her about the stories her photographs tell.

Chrysanthemum Wine on the Double Nine

Chrysanthemums and Wine Jar by Chinese artist Qi Baishi

Chrysanthemums and Wine Jar by Chinese artist Qi Baishi

An age-old tradition in China is to climb to a high place on the ninth day of the ninth month, or the Double Ninth, to eat and drink with family and friends and enjoy the autumn scenery, especially chrysanthemums. These seasonal blooms are particularly associated with Tao Qian (365–427), the magistrate of Pengze, who grew the flowers and loved drinking wine. Drinking chrysanthemum wine on the Double Ninth is said to promote good health and prolong life.

Poem by Cui Shu in cursive script

Poem by Cui Shu in cursive script

This sixteenth-century Chinese scroll bears a poem by the writer Cui Shu (active mid-8th century) titled “On the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month, Climbing the Terrace of Looking For the Immortal.” To observe the holiday, Cui Shu and his friends climbed a high terrace built by Emperor Wen (reigned 179–157 BCE), a scenic spot in Shaanxi province that evoked for the poet a series of historical and literary associations:

Emperor Wen of the Han dynasty raised this high terrace,
Which today we climb to watch the colors of dawn begin.
Cloudy hills of the Jin States stretch off to the north,
Gusting rain over Twin Knolls comes down from the east.
Who would recognize the warden of the far frontier gate?
The old Immortal-on-the-River is gone and won’t return.
Let’s search nearby instead for the Magistrate of Pengze,
To happily imbibe with him a cup of chrysanthemum wine.

Chinese Red

Dish with copper-red glaze; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande (1426–35) mark and period; porcelain with copper-red glaze; on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue) reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze; Purchase—Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries F2015.2

In “Red: Ming Dynasty/Mark Rothko,” opening tomorrow, this superb Ming dynasty dish is juxtaposed with a Mark Rothko painting to display the power of red across time.

China has always privileged the color red. Cinnabar and red ochre were used in ancient burials, probably to represent lifeblood and to help the deceased make the transition from death to immortality. Over time, red became associated with all things auspicious and happy. The Chinese valued its symbolic connection to fire, the sun, the heart, and the southern direction—all positive forces of energy.

For centuries, red has been China’s color of power, celebration, fertility, prosperity, and repelling evil. It has been chosen for the robes of high officials, traditional wedding dresses, babies’ clothing, envelopes for gifts of money, and the walls surrounding the Forbidden City to keep its occupants safe. On Lunar New Year, now as in the past, streets and homes are bedecked with red lanterns, and finery for the day is red or accented by it. Even China’s national flag is red—chosen both as an emblem of the People’s Revolution and as the traditional color of the Chinese people—summing up the color’s importance to national identity.

Round box with dragon and flower; China, Ming dynasty, Wanli reign, 1590s; carved red, black, and yellow lacquer (ticai) on wood core; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1953.63a–b

Round box with dragon and flower; China, Ming dynasty, Wanli reign, 1590s; carved red, black, and yellow lacquer (ticai) on wood core; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1953.63a–b

The English-speaking world has long recognized China’s love of red. Pantone, the standardized color matching system, includes “Chinese red,” a description that can be used to buy house paint or nail polish. But what color is it? “Chinese red” is a vivid orangey-red best described as vermillion. Originally made by grinding the mineral cinnabar and later produced synthetically, vermillion can include a range of warm hues, from bright orange-red to a duller bluish-red. In China, people sometimes refer to “Big Red,” which is a vibrant vermillion; the name also refers to the color’s place on the visible color spectrum, on which red has the longest, strongest presence. Underlying this term, you can feel the deep association with red in the Chinese imagination.

Cinnabar/vermillion is the most common shade of red in China, but it far from the only hue. Dozens of color names that translate as “scarlet,” “ruby,” “crimson,” and “rose” appear in the Chinese language. To suit each art form’s technical requirements, different pigments are used for dying silk, coloring lacquer, or decorating porcelain, thus ensuring a large palette of reds in Chinese art.

Dish with design of dragons and clouds; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande Reign, 1426–35; porcelain with cobalt under clear glaze, enamel over glaze; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1965.4

Dish with design of dragons and clouds; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande Reign, 1426–35; porcelain with cobalt under clear glaze, enamel over glaze; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1965.4

Throughout the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), red was favored to connote power and status. The dynasty was founded in the south, which is represented by the color, and the ruling family’s name, Zhu, means “vermillion.” Porcelain, beloved by the early fifteenth-century emperors, was decorated in reds created with a variety of techniques. An iron-red was developed for painting the five-clawed dragon—symbol of the emperor—on a vessel after it had been fired. This achieved a color similar to vermilion, which itself was not suitable for the heat of the kiln.

To create an all-over monochrome red—like the one seen on our dish in Red: Ming Dynasty/Mark Rothko, opening tomorrow—artists had to use a technique in which nanoparticles of copper oxide colored the glaze. The result achieved a tone in the bluish end of the vermillion spectrum, rather like crushed raspberries. “Fresh red” (likened to the blood of a freshly beheaded chicken) and “sacrificial red” are Chinese terms applied to this luscious red glaze. Instead of a blood sacrifice (a common misconception in English), “sacrificial” here refers to the early Ming emperors’ use of copper-red-glazed vessels to present offerings in ritual ceremonies at the Altar of the Sun.

Dish with copper-red glaze; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande (1426–35) mark and period; porcelain with copper-red glaze; on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue) reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze; Purchase—Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, F2015.2

Dish with copper-red glaze; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande (1426–35) mark and period; porcelain with copper-red glaze; on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue) reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze; Purchase—Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, F2015.2

The copper-red color must have pleased the Ming emperors at least as much as any of the other red hues that surrounded them. They continued to order this color despite the fact that it was so difficult to make; this explains the many unsuccessful attempts that have been discovered in a rubbish heap at the imperial kiln. Examples of copper-red glaze that did make the grade attest to the Ming potters’ amazing control of a demanding technology, as well as to their artistic sensitivity. While this shade may not initially strike you as “Chinese red,” spending time with our dish may prove that its particular hue is the most mesmerizing red of all.

Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake

One of the "Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake" by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun

One of the “Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake” by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun

 

Ninety-three years ago today, the Great Kanto Earthquake rocked Japan, destroying Tokyo and Yokohama and wreaking widespread damage. The jolt struck at 11:58 am, when many residents were cooking their lunches over open fires. As stoves were overturned and gas mains ruptured, blazes quickly erupted, ravaging the cities’ wooden houses and anything else in their paths. A 300-foot-tall fire tornado, or “dragon twist,” tore through an area near Tokyo’s Sumida River where tens of thousands had sought shelter from the chaos; only a few hundred survived.

The earthquake’s epicenter was in the waters of Sagami Bay, triggering a tsunami that reached heights of forty feet. In the ancient capital of Kamakura, a twenty-foot wave killed some three hundred people and shifted the city’s Great Buddha—weighing in at 121 tons—by more than a foot. A total of about 140,000 people perished in the disaster.

Nishimura Goun (1877–1938), a Kyoto painter known for his soft, lyrical renderings of birds, fish, animals, and flowers, turned to the earthquake as the subject for this handscroll, which he completed two years afterward. To report the devastation of September 1, 1923, Goun adopted the traditional horizontal format of episodes linked by text. Although Goun was a Kyoto artist, his scenes seem to be based on first-hand observation. The result is an odd union of harsh subject matter and his signature gentle style.