Category Archives: From the Collections

New Arrival: A Robe for Royalty

Prince’s summer chaofu (formal court dress); China, Qing dynasty, 19th century, probably 1820–60; silk gauze, embroidery in silk and metallic-wrapped threads, gold-printed trim, metal buttons; 141 x 170.2 cm; Gift of Shirley Z. Johnson; Freer Gallery of Art, F2015.7

Prince’s summer chaofu (formal court dress); China, Qing dynasty, 19th century, probably 1820–60; silk gauze, embroidery in silk and metallic-wrapped threads, gold-printed trim, metal buttons; 141 x 170.2 cm; Gift of Shirley Z. Johnson; Freer Gallery of Art, F2015.7

The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) court was world-renowned for sumptuous spectacle, due in no small part to the luxury of the silk garments worn by the ruling family and courtiers. This robe, a chaofu, is an example of the most formal Qing garment. From its exquisite quality to the tailoring and decoration, every detail signals the power and confidence of an imperial family ruling a prosperous multiethnic empire.

Fastened at the side, chaofu are tailored with long sleeves and a hip-length bodice attached to a pleated skirt. In English, the style is known as either a court or a ritual robe, since such garments could only be worn by the emperor and individuals of rank for rituals or important court assemblies.

Along with its astonishingly pristine condition, this robe—which was exhibited in our 2001 exhibition Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits—is rare in several regards, including for its exceptionally intricate open-work gauze pattern. The airy material suits Beijing’s hot summers (winter chaofu were of heavier silk with fur lining or trim). The embroidery is extraordinarily fine, with the silk threads worked so that the stitching is equally finished on both sides of the fabric. An embroidered character reading “universe” is inside the neck.

The robe on view in our 2001 exhibition "Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits."

The robe on view in our 2001 exhibition “Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits.”

Imagery on court robes depended on the owner’s status, and the decoration here was for a prince of the first rank. The five-clawed dragons on the chest, back, and shoulders are surrounded by five-colored clouds and other auspicious symbols, hovering above a cosmic mountain at the center of the seas. The number eighteen is special as a multiple of nine, the number most closely associated with the emperor; here, eighteen dragon roundels appear on the skirt, sixteen of which are visible (two are hidden beneath the skirt’s front-opening flap). The robe glitters in the light with its dragons worked in gold- and silver-wrapped threads and gold printed trim, outlined by more golden threads.

A detail of the robe.

A detail of the robe.

The imperial family was proud of its Manchu ethnic identity and long success as a conquering dynasty that ruled China and mastered its culture. The rulers broadcast this by incorporating distinctive elements of Manchu dress into the cut of the chaofu, which otherwise borrows heavily from native Chinese dress, including for the pleated skirt and dragon decoration­. The horse-hoof shape of the cuffs, for example, recalls the protective sleeve-ends worn by Manchu horsemen and archers, from whom the imperial family descended.

The first costume to enter the Freer’s collection, this chaofu allows the museum to embody and project the power, status, and grandeur of the ruling elite in a personal way—through a garment that must have been worn by a first-rank prince. The donor of this major gift, Shirley Z. Johnson, has generous plans to follow it with other Chinese textiles from her stellar collection.

Earth Day: Searching for Plum Blossoms

Searching for Plum Blossoms While Riding on a Donkey; probably Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535);  China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century; hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; Freer Gallery of Art, F1917.108

Searching for Plum Blossoms While Riding on a Donkey; probably Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535); China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century; hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; Freer Gallery of Art, F1917.108

In this sixteenth-century scroll, a man rides a donkey along a lakeside trail followed by a servant carrying his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar. Bundled against the cold, the man may have set out from the rustic houses nestled below the towering mountains. Glancing up at the first plum tree on the trail, he heads toward a thatch-roofed pavilion shaded by pines and plums in bloom.

Searching for plum blossoms in the winter mountains became a seasonal pastime in China during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Numerous poems and other accounts confirm that it was still a common practice more than two centuries later, during the Ming dynasty (1369–1644). Seen as a harbinger of spring, plum blossoms were admired for their ephemeral, pristine beauty and their fortitude in blooming during the coldest part of the year. They were also an emblem of the dignified gentleman in retirement.

See this scroll and other masterworks of painting, poetry, and calligraphy—known in China as the “Three Perfections”—in Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty.

Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty

Walking by a Mountain Stream; Shen Zhou (1427–1509); China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1487–89; album leaf; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art, F1911.163o

Walking by a Mountain Stream; Shen Zhou (1427–1509); China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1487–89; album leaf; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art, F1911.163o

From music to drama, cuisine to garden design, members of the Wu School excelled in all forms of creative expression. Centered on the affluent city of Suzhou and nearby towns, this driving force of Chinese culture during the Ming dynasty (1369–1644) took its name from a kingdom that once ruled the region. Of all their talents, Suzhou’s artists were most admired by contemporaries and later generations for their poetry, calligraphy, and painting. These complementary art forms, known collectively in China as the Three Perfections, were considered the ultimate modes of literati expression.

Opening Saturday, Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty celebrates Wu School works, examining the relationships among their imagery, brushstrokes, and, especially, words. Selections are drawn from the Freer|Sackler—home to one of the best Wu School collections in the country—as well as other museums and collections.

You’ll encounter works by some two dozen Wu School painters and calligraphers in the exhibition, including the “Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty”: Shen Zhou (1427–1509; see his work above), Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), Tang Yin (1470–1524), and Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552). This foursome exemplifies the two main groups of Wu School artists. Tang and Qiu were professional artists who accepted commissions from a range of clients and relied on their work to make a living. Shen and Wen were literati, or gentleman artists, who embraced the Three Perfections as both a personal pastime and a medium of social currency.

At the time, most of China’s professional artists worked in highly polished styles and favored traditional literary and historical subjects, which had wide public recognition and popular appeal. Gentleman artists, on the other hand, largely created works for each other, and their brushwork and themes tended to be more nuanced and personal in nature. Poetry was the primary vehicle of polite social exchange for most literati artists, as well as their preferred form of self-expression. Poems are ubiquitous throughout the exhibition, alternately inspiring, accompanying, and responding to the paintings and calligraphy.

The Big Sneeze

Jade nose plug, China

Jade nose plug, China

As the pollen count rises, we in tree-lined Washington, DC, also witness an increase in sniffles, sneezes, and, in response, “bless you”s. Many of us in the States are also familiar with “gesundheit”s or “You’re sooooo good-looking“s.

But what about our fellow allergy sufferers around the globe? In some Arabic-speaking countries, people answer a sneeze with “Alhamdulillah,” meaning “praise be to God.” In Turkey, a sneeze elicits “Çok yaşa“; in Persian, it’s “عافیت باشه” (Afiat basheh).

Sneezes generally aren’t acknowledged in China; neither are they in Japan. However, there is a Japanese saying about sneezing:

一誹二笑三惚四風邪

If you sneeze once, someone is talking or spreading bad things about you.

If you sneeze twice, someone is making fun of you.

If you sneeze three times, someone loves you.

If you sneeze four times, you’ve got a cold.

The Saddest Toad

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

Large Toad; artist: Obaku Tokuan (act. 1910–35); calligrapher: Ōbaku Chokuō 黄檗直翁 (1867–1937); Japan, Taisho era, 1919; hanging scroll, ink and color on paper; Purchase from the Estate of Robert O. Muller with funds from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Harold P. Stern Memorial Fund, F2004.29

In case you missed it, the Large Toad took the #MarchSadness crown. One of his many fans asked about the writing behind him. Thanks to our talented fellow Alessandro Bianchi, we now have a translation:

奇哉膨月亨

How uncanny! [A toad with such a] large belly

肚裏乾坤

The universe [resides] in its stomach;

一息之際

With every single breath [it takes]

萬象吐呑

All living beings respire.

Ancestors Day

Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186

Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186

China celebrates the Qingming Festival today. Also known as Grave Sweeping Day or Ancestors Day, it’s a time for families to visit the graves of their loved ones, making offerings to honor those who came before.

The image above, a hanging scroll known as Portrait of a woman in green, is an ancestor portrait, a type of painting used in rituals and family settings to commemorate deceased relatives. The woman’s strict, frontal pose, covered hands, and almost life-size depiction are all qualities typical of these works.

We don’t know who this woman was, but the items on the red lacquer table behind her give a sense of her personality. Writing brushes and books refer to her education. An incense burner and a small box to hold the incense suggest the fragrance of her study, while a sprig of bamboo and the cloudlike swirl of an auspicious fungus convey a wish for the immortality of her spirit.

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Portraits of this kind were not regarded as art but as ritual objects, and the artists were expected to efface themselves entirely from the image. Though the names of the painters of ancestor portraits were almost never recorded, they fulfilled a necessary role in Chinese society and existed in every community.

Several years ago, a group of teens studied how the tradition of ancestor worship continues today in some Chinese and Chinese-American communities. Through interviews, family stories, old photo albums, and video footage, they pieced together a look at present-day practices, including those for Qingming jie. 

One of the stories the teens captured was from a husband and wife who had a remarkable ancestral experience early in their relationship:

This story begins many years ago in Taiwan, when Kenneth Chiu and his wife, Carol, were dating. Kenneth and his family paid respects to their ancestors each year with ceremonies and offerings. One year, Carol happened to be visiting Kenneth during one of the ceremony days. She was a Christian and didn’t understand the significance of the rituals. Kenneth responded to her questions by asking for her ancestors’ names and their land of origin. Then he took some paper “spirit” money, sealed it in an envelope, and burned it as an offering to her ancestors.

The next morning, Carol’s mother, who had just arrived from China, began to talk about a strange thing that had just happened to her.

She first told Carol something that she had never mentioned before: ever since the death of her own mother (Carol’s grandmother), she had been haunted every year by her ghost. This happened on Qingming jie (Grave Sweeping Day). In the recurring dream, her mother stood before her, looking at her, but never saying a word. She was always wearing the clothes she had been buried in, now worn and tattered, and she was always frowning, seeming sad and unhappy. Every Qingming jie for twenty years, Carol’s mother had this dream.

Carol still hadn’t spoken a word before her mother continued with her story. The night before, the eve of Qingming jie, the dream had occurred again. The same spirit approached her, but this time her mother was smiling! She had a look of contentment and was richly garbed with glowing, beautiful robes. Carol’s mother finished her story with a look of awe on her face. Then Carol fully realized the importance of the paper “spirit” money that Kenneth had burned as an offering to her dead ancestors. Her grandmother, as a spirit, had acquired the money in the offering.

Arwa and Ahmed: An Interview with Two Saudi Art Stars

CNN included Ahmed Mater and Arwa Al Neami in its list of Saudi Arabia’s rising art stars a few years ago. Active artists when they met—and now husband and wife—Mater and Al Neami have continued to ascend. Al Neami became the first woman to photograph the Prophet’s Mosque, considered the Islamic world’s second-holiest site, in 2014. She also made international waves with her Never Never Land series, a moving look at how Saudi women manage to enjoy amusement parks despite the heavy restrictions imposed upon them.

Mater, considered among the most influential Saudi artists, attracted his own global attention with his piece Magnetism, an abstract interpretation of the hajj that was exhibited at the British Museum. And this year, Mater debuted Symbolic Cities in our galleries, the first US museum exhibition dedicated solely to his work. To mark the occasion, both artists visited Washington, DC, and sat down with me to chat about their work and their lives together.

Does your background as a medical doctor continue to influence your work?

Ahmed Mater: Yes, of course, because it’s about my life and journey. I think medicine falls between subjectivity and objectivity. Art does the same in my life. In my latest project, I try to explore the “intervention” with the cities, and I also call it the “prognosis” of the cities. I treat all of my projects and artwork maybe subconsciously from a medical approach. It’s a holistic approach.

Why do you think you were drawn to both art and medicine?

AM: I think it’s part of my journey. Maybe I chose it, or maybe it’s like destiny. But I manage both of them within one mission.

Why is it important for the public to see your images—particularly an American audience?

AM: I really believe in the common cultural product. When you go to Saudi Arabia, you see a lot of American life there, which is imported through the media, through commercials . . . It’s a common concern, the materialistic new life we are living now. We share that concern.

What is your favorite piece of the ones you’ve created recently?

AM: Maybe Leaves Fall in All Seasons, a film that was in the Berlin Film Festival and got a lot of attention from the critics and audiences. There is an experimental part where the film is taken by the workers themselves. I collected all of the clips from their mobile phones. [The film] has a new perspective from the people inside the construction in Mecca.

What kind of reaction did audiences have to the Never Never Land series? 

Arwa Al Neami: The first time they saw the video and the images, they loved it and were surprised. When they looked a second time, they felt sad. It’s sad because of all the rules [imposed on the women] . . . Many ladies have said to me, “Keep going, we are with you.” It changed my life because it made me think deeply about their emotion—how the rules are [increasing] and how the ladies still try to find a way to have fun. All of my artwork now is about the feelings of [women in Saudi Arabia]—how to be sexy and beautiful, how they have power even when they are covered.

Where is your art taking you now?

AAN: I have a new video called Red Lipstick. If you cover something, it becomes more sexy. If you cover just one finger and show the rest of the body naked, you want to try to see what’s on that one finger. I covered the face of my friend—she’s a Christian; it was her first time wearing the niqab . . . I put red lipstick on her, then covered her face. A fan blows up [the niqab], and you see the red lipstick becoming more and more sexy.

The other project is [based on] a fictional story. I wake up and I smell cardamom, like how my grandmother would crush it and put it in coffee in the morning. And there’s the sound of the crushing of the beans—the sound is really strong and beautiful. When you enter [the installation], you cannot see anything; you can just smell the cardamom and hear [women’s] voices. Many ladies enter and come out crying. They remember their grandmothers. The smell has a lot of memories for the Saudis.

What is daily life like in a home with two active artists?

AM: We share a studio, and we help other artists together. We started in the studio, Arwa and me, we started with this idea . . . Why don’t we find an old villa from the 1970s and renovate it and make it a hub for artists, for ladies and men together? . . . There’s a kitchen on the second floor, we make coffee, tea; sometimes we all make dinner together.

AAN: We spend all day in the studio. I have a couch, and people stay and sleep . . . We have between fifteen and twenty people every day, from local people to ambassadors.

AM: We have a small warehouse where people can debate, do standup comedy—they can test their work. . . . We call it Disney for artists.

What is the relationship between your work?

AM: It’s complementary. She talks about the issues that she feels [strongly about] and I try to cover those issues.

AAN: We try to find different approaches, which makes it more rich. . . .  It’s very important because some artists, when they work together for a long time, they clash.

AM: We try to make ourselves open to new approaches and exploration.

Prints Fit for a Dig

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of the mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Herzfeld identified the figure standing at the foot of Cyrus the Great’s mausoleum as Sayyid Jawad. Probably a local, his inclusion in the image lends the structure a sense of scale.

Why so blue? This “blue print” is an example of the cyanotype process, used throughout the twentieth century to make inexpensive copies of photographs and engineering drawings. Made from a glass plate negative that archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld took during his excavation at Pasargadae, the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, between 1905 and 1928, it shows the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great, who established the site.

Below, another of Herzfeld’s shots captured a rare view inside Cyrus’s tomb, which includes a small wall niche for a lamp. Reportedly, while Cyrus lay mummified in his golden coffin, his clothing was displayed around the chamber and local priests were paid a monthly allowance to stand guard. When the Greeks conquered Achaemenid Iran in 330 BCE, Cyrus’s mausoleum was looted, but the Macedonian conqueror Alexander ordered it to be refurbished in honor of the legendary king.

View through entrance from interior

View through entrance from interior

Making a cyanotype involves coating a piece of paper with chemicals, superimposing the negative on it, and exposing it to sunlight. Fine arts photographers avoided cyanotypes for their intense blue pigments and lack of fine detail. Produced on regular notebook paper, however, cyanotypes proved far more resilient in the rough conditions of an archaeological dig than delicate darkroom prints. Herzfeld’s cyanotypes survived the excavation and are now part of his archives here at the museum. See them in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, now on view.

Unraveling Our Objects’ Histories

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Some of our objects carry thousands of years of history—yet their past seventy-five years or so may be the most difficult to unravel. During the tumultuous years before and during World War II, the Nazi regime and its collaborators orchestrated a system of confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, and destruction of cultural objects on an unprecedented scale. Millions of art objects and other cultural items were unlawfully and often forcibly taken from their rightful owners. While many of these confiscated items were returned after the war, some continue to appear on the legitimate art market and make their way into private and public collections.

As part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing commitment to establish provenance (a fancy word for origins and ownership history) across its collections, for years we have been working on a comprehensive research project focused on our Asian artworks. Our latest development is an updated provenance page on which you can learn about our efforts—and about the major Asian art dealers, collectors, and galleries involved in many of our objects’ histories.

This marks a new innovation in World War II provenance research, in that it focuses not on the artworks themselves but on the way they moved through a network of individuals, businesses, and museums. Some fifty biographies are now available to the public. For example, you can learn about C. T. Loo (1880–1957), a Chinese art dealer from whom the museum acquired nearly four hundred works, including this Tang dynasty mirror in 1935. 

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The biographies are linked to their relevant objects with provenance records and related images. You’ll also find articles detailing auctions that were held in the critical years leading up to and during the World War II era. Together, this information reveals patterns of movement of Asian art that were previously hidden from researchers. And there’s more to come: we are planning to develop a tool that will incorporate the provenance data of partner institutions, helping us paint an even more complete picture of our collections’ past.

Elite Eight: March Sadness

A Japanese mask and a Chinese figure of a mourning attendance face off in round one of March Sadness.

A Japanese mask and a Chinese figure of a mourning attendance tearfully face off in round one of March Sadness.

If you’re going to be sad, you might as well be the best at it. We’re glumly kicking off our Elite Eight rounds of March Sadness. Head to our Facebook page to like (or better yet, react with a cry-face to) the contestant you find the most heartbreaking. Then, follow along with our bracket to track who wins … and loses. 🙁