Category Archives: From the Collections

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.

Powerballs

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.

A Glimpse of New Year’s Gold

Tea bowl with design of chrysanthemums; Nin’ami Dōhachi 仁阿弥道八 (1783–1855); Japan, Kyoto prefecture, Kyoto, Gojozaka, Edo period, early 19th century; F1896.55

Tea bowl with design of chrysanthemums; Nin’ami Dōhachi 仁阿弥道八 (1783–1855); Japan, Kyoto prefecture, Kyoto, Gojozaka, Edo period, early 19th century; F1896.55

How are you welcoming in the first day of 2016? Decorated with chrysanthemums, this bowl may have been made for a tea gathering, or chanoyu, to celebrate the New Year. Bowls newly made for New Year’s chanoyu events often were decorated with fragile gold leaf, which wore off in the course of a single use. Artist Nin’ami Dōhachi used a thick white-clay solution to model the relief decoration of chrysanthemum blossoms, a floral motif that is closely associated with autumn through winter.

Evolutionary: Whistler, Darwin, and the Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876–77) triggered a famous clash between the artist and his patron, Frederick Leyland. In the 1870s, though, peacocks were ruffling feathers all over Britain, prompted in part by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection pointed out that male birds’ showy plumage makes them easy targets for predators. If evolution by natural selection was valid, how could such a hindrance as a peacock’s train possibly have arisen, much less persisted?

This conundrum troubled Darwin, who confided to a fellow naturalist, “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” But by 1871, he had developed a corollary theory of sexual selection, which explained that conspicuous variations in males make them irresistible, improving reproductive rates and offsetting any potential handicap or hazard. The peacock’s train thus evolved from generations of peahens selecting ever-more-gorgeous mates.

Particularly shocking to Victorians was Darwin’s suggestion that the appreciation of beauty is not a uniquely human quality. Debates over the origins and purpose of beauty played out among scientists, artists, and the public throughout the 1870s.

Scholars have long noted Whistler’s multiple sources of inspiration in the Peacock Room: Japanese peacock imagery; Western traditions associating the bird with beauty, luxury, and excess; and the vogue for peacocks and their feathers among Whistler’s fellow avant-garde artists. I believe that we can also look at the room through a Darwinian lens. For instance, the peacocks on the shutters play with and against Darwin’s assertion that male peafowl display their trains to attract females—or fight each other for the same purpose. The birds on the flanking shutters “display” with no hens in sight; in the central shutter, two males sit side by side, contemplating the beauty of the full moon. The shutters celebrate aesthetic delight without any reference to reproduction—indeed, without any possibility of it.

Peacock Room shutters

Peacocks do confront each other on the room’s south wall, in the mural Art and Money, pictured at top. But here, the angry bird (a caricature of Leyland, Whistler’s parsimonious patron) fights for his money, not a mate. The scene becomes ironic only in light of Darwin’s evolutionist explanation for clashes between peacocks. Behavior that Darwin attributed to the reproductive drive is here misdirected toward maintaining personal wealth. The Leyland-peacock hoards rather than disseminates, stifling rather than multiplying the (pro)creative power of art.

Friday Fave: Sugimoto’s Seascapes

An installation shot from the exhibition, "Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto," Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2009

An installation shot from the 2009 Freer|Sackler exhibition “Seascapes: Tryon and Sugimoto.”

The Freer|Sackler has always been a place of serenity and introspection for me. I enjoy the tranquility of sitting and viewing a work, letting my mind wander and slowly digest the nuances of the piece in front of me. This intimate relationship between art and viewer, for me, is mirrored in the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto.

My first exposure to his work was at the Baltimore Museum of Art. As I turned the corner into a side gallery, I saw a black rectangle the size of a chalkboard. From afar, it appeared as a modernist void, but as I moved closer, subtle details slowly appeared. A horizon, a slight gradation of black and white, filled the space.

That particular piece was a black-and-white photograph of the ocean. It is part of Sugimoto’s Seascapes series, long-exposure photographs of water horizons taken over several hours. The resulting large-format prints are hazy, dreamlike images that are tranquil and meditative. His focus on perceiving the ephemeral is captured in these snapshots of light and time and are simply beautiful in their peacefulness. The images are recognizable, but as if recalled from a memory.

I was delighted to discover that the Freer|Sackler has a series of Sugimoto’s ocean photographs. My personal favorite is Boden Sea/Utwill, demonstrating the artist’s mastery of portraying tonality and near formlessness. Air, water, time, and light all come together in a single photograph. The image is so simple, yet it encapsulates the essence of life on this planet.

While none of Sugimoto’s photographs are currently on view in the galleries, you can always see them online (along with the entire museum collection) at Open F|S.

Come visit! While the Freer Gallery closes for renovation on January 4, 2016, the Sackler Gallery remains open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Inspired By the Dark

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Winter light can be exquisite when it changes in late afternoon, as the dark comes earlier and earlier. A wonderful way to take it in, I think, is to walk through our galleries—especially in the Freer, with its central courtyard—and watch the day turn into night.

Artists have long captured changing daylight and dusk and the chromatic layers of evening. James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes shimmer with the texture of variable light, turning the surface of the canvas (or paper) into visual poetry. Kobayashi Kiyochika is another favorite artist in our collections whose celebrated woodblock prints were featured in the exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night in 2014. The exhibition was held concurrently with An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. Whistler’s London and Kiyochika’s Tokyo were often depicted at night—two distinct worlds separated by nearly six thousand miles, but linked by the play of shadow and light.

For centuries and across cultures, artists have been inspired by the night. If you search for the word “night” on Open F|S, you’ll bring up more than 450 works of art. If you choose “dusk,” you’ll get to see 25 more.

While the Freer goes dark from January 4, 2016, through mid-2017, the Sackler will remain open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Shadows and Light (Sabers): Star Wars Puppetry

Traditional Malaysian shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, with scenes from Star Wars. Photo: AFP

Traditional Malaysian shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, with scenes from Star Wars. Photo: AFP

While Star Wars: The Force Awakens breaks box office records around the world, in Malaysia, the story of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and company is being used to reinvigorate the traditional art of shadow puppetry. A recent shadow puppet performance has been technologically updated to tell the story of Star Wars. The hope is to gather new audiences and a new appreciation for an old-fashioned method of storytelling.

In Southeast Asia, shadow puppets have been used for centuries to convey stories that can be educational, spiritual, or just entertaining. The puppets are intricately carved and animated by flickering candlelight. In the collections of the Freer|Sackler, we have two shadow puppets from Cambodia and depictions of puppets in artworks from other parts of Asia.

One of the quotes I’ve heard from The Force Awakens is, “The Light—It’s always been there. It will guide you.” The same goes for storytelling. Whether that light is from a computer screen, a candle, or a movie projector, the stories we tell all around the world link us and, hopefully, guide us as well.

The Freer Gallery closes for renovation on January 4, 2016, so we can better present our art and serve our visitors. The Sackler Gallery remains open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Last Chance! Peacock Room Shutters Open Today

Light from the open shutters illuminates the Peacock Room.

Light from the open shutters illuminates the Peacock Room.

Today from 12–5:30 pm, take advantage of the last opportunity until 2017 to view the Peacock Room with its shutters open. Beginning January 4, 2016, the Freer Gallery will close for renovations so that we may better serve our visitors.

We’ve been opening the shutters each month to highlight the chromatic complexity of the Peacock Room’s decoration. Once light pours in, the colors become richer and the gold shines. The effect makes you appreciate the work’s full title, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. It is a dazzling moment that feels operatic in its power. No wonder Whistler often chose to title his works with musical references. Viewing the Peacock Room in natural light is a true symphony for the eyes. And, with conservation in mind, a special filtering film has been applied to the windows to preserve the iconic room and protect the contents from fading.

Remember: While the Freer is closed, you can still see the Peacock Room’s contemporary counterpart Filthy Lucre in the Sackler, which remains open. Plus, you can visit Whistler’s masterpiece anytime via our free Peacock Room app.