Reviving “The Death of the Historical Buddha”


Standing sixteen feet tall, The Death of the Historical Buddha by Japanese artist Hanabusa Itchō is among the most important Buddhist paintings of its time. Two of our conservators recently traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to help restore this massive hanging scroll, which hasn’t been treated and remounted since the 1850s. With the help of a GoPro camera, we’re able to give a quick look at their many hours of work. Below, supervisory conservator Andrew Hare talks about the project and the conservation processes seen in these time lapses.

Fellow conservator Jiro Ueda and I headed up to Boston in August to join the MFA’s conservation project. Over the past month, we have helped restore and remount a large Buddhist painting in one of their galleries, with public access available throughout the process.

As seen in the video above, we applied a temporary facing to the painting (front and back) using water and several layers of synthetic and Chinese papers. This process protects the painting’s surface while gently drawing away staining and soiling. We then placed the painting between layers of felt to dry.



Next, we covered the work table with several layers of protective paper. We then laid the painting on the work surface and humidified it before removing the temporary facing from the front. After more humidifying, we turned the painting face down on the table. We removed sections of the old lining paper that covered creases in the work, and then brushed out those sections to expand the creases and make the painting flat.



In the third video, we are carefully removing the old lining paper from the back of the painting using tweezers and bamboo spatulas. This is careful and time-consuming work. To complete the removal as efficiently as possible, Chinese painting conservation colleagues from the MFA Boston team joined in to help. As we removed large sections of the old lining, about a quarter of the painting at a time, we applied a new lining of thin Mino paper with wheat starch paste. Once the entire painting was relined, we again left it to dry between felt.

The project continues in Boston, where the public can watch the conservators at work. Follow along on our blog and the MFA‘s. 

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.

Performing Indonesia: Tickets On Sale!

House of Angklung #4

Tickets are on sale now for this year’s Performing Indonesia, our third annual celebration of Indonesian cultural expressions. Indonesia, a Southeast Asian nation made up of thousands of volcanic islands, is home to hundreds of ethnic groups and more Muslims than any other country in the world. We’ll explore these “Islamic Intersections” through a fashion show of contemporary Muslim designs, a puppet play (wayang) about a mystical journey, concerts of music by Indonesian and American composers, a lecture-demonstration on Qur’anic recitation, and a symposium on Islam and the performing arts.

In total, more than eighty musicians, dancers, and other performing artists from Indonesia and across the United States will appear at the festival, which runs from September 10 through November 19. Check out the full lineup and reserve your spot!

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.


(Every Day is) Dog Day



Give your pup some love for National Dog Day! Small jade animals like this hound were enjoyed as handsome decorations by China’s elite. Due to jade’s cool surface, they were also used as objects to caress. Hounds are, in general, well regarded in China; one of the years of the zodiac is named after the dog. In fact, this jade object might have been presented to someone born in the year of the dog. The slender animal wears a collar with a bell, suggesting that it is a hunting dog.

Incense box with relief figure of lion

Incense box with relief figure of lion

The mythical lion dog, such as the one that decorates this incense box, symbolizes strength and protection, especially of children. The image of a lion dog frolicking among peonies is a favored combination in both Chinese and Japanese imagery.

Puppies in the Snow

Puppies in the Snow

Japanese artist Isoda Koryusai (1735–1790) produced some 150 designs of flowers, birds, and animals. In one of his most charming works, seven puppies huddle together under a shelter that protects a blossoming narcissus from the snow. The print incorporates references to 1778, the year of the dog and when it was published. Calendar prints like this example were distributed as gifts at the beginning of the New Year; on the lunar calendar, this fell in mid- to late February, when narcissus began to bloom but snow might still fall.

Word Play

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Twenty-one monkeys greet visitors to the Freer|Sackler. They hang in the stairwell, dangling from the Sackler’s glass atrium all the way to a small reflecting pool three levels down. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, a suspended sculpture by Xu Bing (born 1955), is a chain made up of twenty-one large, black, lacquered wood pieces. Created specifically for the space as part of a 2001 exhibition of the artist’s work, it tucks nicely into the existing architecture. It is the only piece from the exhibition that was permanently installed in the museum.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is based on the Chinese fable of the same name. The story goes that a group of monkeys catch sight of the moon and attempt to capture it. Working together, they link arms and tails to form a chain reaching from their tree branch to the moon. Just as they’re about to grab it, the monkeys realize that they had merely seen the shimmering reflection of the moon on the surface of a pool. The dual lesson is that working together lets us achieve our dreams, but also that our dreams may be naught but illusion.

Xu Bing brought this lesson into the twenty-first century with his sculpture. Rather than creating actual monkey forms, he designed pieces shaped like the word “monkey” in a dozen languages, with each word forming a link on the chain. In this way, Xu communicates the importance of working together in an age and world as interconnected as ours. The languages—representing various countries, cultures, religions, and ethnicities—must come together to achieve greater goals.

Certainly, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is a work that could be, should be, and is admired for its aesthetic qualities, innovation, and narrative. But on top of this, the work deserves to be recognized as expressly demonstrative of the oeuvre of a very important artist. Xu Bing stands among the most celebrated contemporary Chinese artists; he is already studied in art history classes at many universities. Monkeys is very much in conversation with some of his other best-known works and considers many of the same ideas. In fact, another of Xu’s famous pieces, The Living Word, was also part of his 2001 exhibition at the Freer|Sackler.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon and The Living Word, like Xu’s other works, are inspired by the relationship between meaning and words. The result is a body of work in which the artist considers worldly issues and culture and manipulates language to subvert meaning, to turn expectations on their head, and to change human perception. In Monkeys, his use of words as sculptural forms challenges the viewer to delve deeper for meaning, to analyze, to not accept the fable at face value. When this happens, each “monkey” becomes a microcosm of a culture, and the chain becomes symbolic of an ideal world. This comes full circle to feed back into the lesson of the illusionistic and fleeting nature of dreams.

“Xu Bing: The Living Word” at the Morgan Library and Museum, 2011

In The Living Word, pictured above in its 2011 installation at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, Xu also created a piece that considers the relationship between the written word and its physical meaning. He wrote the definition of the word niao (“bird” in Chinese) on the floor. Gradually, the niao characters morph between types of Chinese text—from Mao’s simplified text to standard Chinese and then to the ancient Chinese pictograph that means “bird.” Simultaneously, the characters move forward and lift off the floor and up to the sky. They look like birds in flight. They are literally breaking free of the literal definition of the word as they move backward on the timeline of language. Xu said that the words are “escaping the confines of human written definition . . . the birds soar, careless of the words with which humans seek to define them.”

When considered against Xu’s overall body of works, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon takes on another dimension. Its meaning becomes even more dynamic and layered. The Freer|Sackler is lucky to have such a work among its collection, and even more so, to have it permanently installed where visitors encounter it every day. And visitors are lucky to have such a work, by such a famous artist, to admire up close as they move throughout the museum.


World Photography Day

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, 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

Today is the sixth annual World Photography Day, an international event spotlighting people’s passion for the camera. In less than a month, we’ll do the same with artist Gauri Gill. Since the late 1990s, Gill (born 1970) has been capturing images of marginalized communities in the desert region of Rajasthan, India. Titled Notes from the Desert, the exhibition will feature nearly sixty of her prints when it opens September 17. Portraits, photographs, and letters offer glimpses of the girls and women of Rajasthan, as well as of Gill’s complex relationships with her subjects.

Staring down from the tree above is Izmat, a single mother whom Gill met during her travels. The two have been friends for nearly two decades, and Izmat and her daughters have become integral to the artist’s work.

A Journey into Whistler’s Drawings

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

More than 150 years ago, a twenty-four-year-old James McNeill Whistler set off on a summertime journey. He and his friend Ernest Delannoy—both young, aspiring artists—embarked on a road trip through the French and German countryside. Their goal was to visit Amsterdam and pay homage to the revered Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn.

Whistler and Delannoy never made it to Amsterdam; they ran out of money and were forced to return to Paris. But the sojourn gave Whistler an opportunity to observe new scenery and subjects and to develop his artistic style. Throughout the trip, the artist kept a notebook, a visual diary of sorts, which he filled with pencil sketches detailing scenes, people, and places along the way. He produced scores of drawings, some of which he later developed as etchings for his so-called French Set.

This summer, I too traveled in pursuit of art. My journey took me from Colby College in Maine to Washington, DC, for an internship at the Freer|Sackler. When I arrived in June, just a few weeks after graduating with a degree in art history, I began surveying the collection of Whistler’s drawings in media other than watercolor and pastel. The majority of the drawings I looked at were from Whistler’s 1858 trip.

I had extensive background knowledge from my previous experience studying Whistler’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, a fellow member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies. This project, however, gave me the new opportunity of handling the works. Emily Jacobson, the museum’s paper conservator, showed me how to handle the art. She then let me work on my own with a headband magnifier and flashlight to conduct what was essentially a forensic examination of each sheet.

Examining Whistler's drawings

Examining Whistler’s drawings

We were trying to determine if Whistler favored particular types of paper for a given medium or if he mixed it up, using, for instance, watercolor blocks for pencil drawings. As I examined each drawing, I paid particular attention to the paper, noting its texture and whether it was “hot press” (run through hot rollers to make it super smooth), “cold press” (run through cold rollers, leaving little bumps and grooves); or “rough” (air-dried, leaving lots of texture). I checked for watermarks; measured the paper’s height, width, and thickness; and inspected the edges for remains of adhesive or fabric. Along the way, I noticed distinct similarities among the sketches, such as the thin, off-white woven paper, the graphite markings on the edges, and the occasional appearance of sewing holes—evidence that papers were ripped or cut out of a sketchbook.

One sketch in particular stood out to me: Promenade à Baden, which depicts a group of fashionable people standing near a portico facing a hill. The drawing is on two pieces of paper glued together side by side. The edges are uneven, and the two pieces do not properly align, making the bottom wider than the top. A vertical fold down the middle of the drawing contains three sewing holes, and like the other sketches from Whistler’s 1858 trip, Promenade à Baden has graphite markings on the edges.

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Even though Whistler probably never meant it to be a finished work, Promenade à Baden fascinated me because it reveals some of the artist’s process. Not only does this sketch provide us with a snapshot of Whistler’s journey, but it also demonstrates how he experimented with cropping and cutting his drawings. The graphite along the edges was probably how he marked where the paper should be trimmed. Additional cut marks near the edges suggest that he considered cropping the drawing even more before ultimately deciding against it. One thin sheet of paper tells us a story of a young, broke artist who, to further his artistic development, drew on anything he could and made the most of each sheet of paper.

Afghan Arts and PechaKucha

Our speakers at tomorrow's open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Our speakers at tomorrow’s open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Tomorrow afternoon, we celebrate Afghan Independence Day and Afghan arts at our third and final open house of the summer season. This six-hour event is an opportunity for making art, tasting Afghan food, hearing from artisans, watching musical performances, listening to traditional stories read by ARCH International, and exploring the arts of Afghanistan, as seen in our Turquoise Mountain exhibition.

The day concludes with PechaKucha-style presentations—a talk given alongside twenty images, each shown for twenty seconds—by social entrepreneurs working with artisans in Asia and beyond, who will share how they got involved and the lives they’ve seen changed. Read their stories below, and meet them tomorrow at 5 pm.


Dawa Drolma was born and raised in Kham Dege, Tibet. Fluent in Chinese, English, and Tibetan, she is passionate about Tibetan culture and traditions and has focused on cultural preservation and folklore studies since 2009. Her documentary films and photos about Tibetan culture have won several international awards, and her first book about Tibetan folksongs, Silence in the Valley of Song, was published in 2012. Drolma also is the brand director of Khyenle, a Tibetan bronze artwork business.

Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo is a Brooklyn-based Colombian artist, technologist, and educator. Her artwork, centered around themes of time and transience, has been internationally exhibited and performed, including at the Kitchen (NYC), UCLA Hammer Museum (LA), Point Éphémère (Paris), and the Museums of Modern Art in Bogotá and Medellín (Colombia). Since 2003, Jaramillo has worked at the New School in New York City, where she is currently associate professor of integrated design at Parsons School of Design and interim vice president for distributed and global education. Her published research is in the area of community-engaged and socially responsible design education. In 2013, Jaramillo was honored with a Fulbright Scholarship for the inaugural Higher Education Administrator’s Program in France.

Brendan Groves is a national security lawyer, a military veteran, and an experienced social entrepreneur. He has received the Bronze Star Medal, the NSA Director’s Award, and two awards from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among other honors. Apart from his government service, Groves is the cofounder of Flying Scarfs, a veteran-run enterprise that empowers marginalized widows in Afghanistan and Kenya by selling handmade artisan items. He also founded the Wishing Well, a nonprofit that has funded more than one hundred water projects in the developing world.

Peggy Clark is vice president of policy programs and executive director of Aspen Global Health and Development at the Aspen Institute, as well as director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. She has had a thirty-year career working on issues of poverty alleviation, global health, social enterprise, and development finance. Serving in founding and leadership roles at the Ford Foundation, Save the Children, and Realizing Rights, among others, Clark has been a leading figure in identifying and building industries, movements, and creative advocacy on key issues. She received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Microenterprise from President Bill Clinton, and she was instrumental in passing the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Ethical Recruitment of Health Workers.

Annie O. Waterman has more than a decade of experience within the global artisan sector. She is the founder of AOW Handmade, which works with wholesalers, designers, and retailers to create unique, high-quality artisan collections while sustaining craft traditions and creating market exposure for artisans worldwide. Waterman recently worked as a project manager for ByHand Consulting, for which she traveled extensively, identifying new artisan companies that qualified for exhibiting in the artisan resource market at NY NOW. She also was a contributing writer for HAND/EYE magazine, an online publication dedicated to global creativity and sustainable design.