Exhibitions/ Discovering Japanese Art

Discovering Japanese Art: American Collectors and the Met

At The Met Fifth Avenue
February 14 / 2015–September 27 / 2015
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

The 2015 centennial of the Department of Asian Art offers an ideal opportunity to explore the history of the Museum's collection of Japanese art. Showcasing more than two hundred masterworks of every medium, this exhibition tells the story of how the Museum built its comprehensive collection of Japanese art beginning in the early 1880s, when it owned just a small, eclectic array of Japanese decorative arts.

Works on view include the world-renowned Great Wave by Hokusai and brilliantly colored screen paintings such as Irises at Yatsuhashi by Ogata Kōrin and Morning Glories by Suzuki Kiitsu. For the first time in over a decade, magnificent sliding-door paintings that once belonged to the Zen temple Ryōanji in Kyoto are on display. Spanning ancient to modern times, the exhibition explores the trends that shaped art collecting and the reception of Japanese art in the United States. Moreover, it sheds light on key American collectors and curators whose passion for Japanese art helped the Museum build its world-class collection.


See the schedule for public guided tours of the Japan galleries.


The exhibition is made possible by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation Fund.


Exhibition Objects

The 1870s was a decade of heightened interest in Japanese decorative arts in America, engendered in part by the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the first official World's Fair in the United States. Influential in furthering this fascination with Japanese art was Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), who assembled a collection of Asian art that informed his designs. Similarly, Tiffany & Co.'s artistic director of silver manufacturing, Edward C. Moore (1827–1891), and Mr. Tiffany's associate Samuel Colman (1832–1920) both became dedicated collectors of Japanese decorative arts, and eventually patrons of the Metropolitan.

Americans who sojourned and shopped for "curios" in Japan played a major role in augmenting the Museum's holdings. In 1881, Stephen Whitney Phoenix (1839–1881), an ardent supporter of New York cultural institutions, gave the first official bequest to the Met, which included an array of fine Japanese lacquers. Charles Stewart Smith (1832–1909) acquired more than four hundred ceramics and a selection of paintings from the British collector Captain Frank Brinkley (1841–1912) while on honeymoon in Japan with his third wife, in 1892. Valentine Everit Macy (1871–1930), a New York industrialist, and his wife, Edith Carpenter Macy (1869–1925), also collected Japanese ceramics on their 1896 honeymoon in Japan. Both couples later donated their collections to the Metropolitan. Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage (Mrs. Russell Sage, 1828–1918), a progressive New York philanthropist, acquired for the Museum a large number of netsuke, small sculptural toggles used to attach inrō (portable medicine cases) to men's kimono sashes. Many of the early Japanophiles, including Bashford Dean (1867–1928), founding curator of the Met's Department of Arms and Armor, also collected Japanese armor, swords, and sword fittings.

Selected Artworks

One may wonder how so many rare works of Japanese art made their way to the Metropolitan from Japanese private collections and temples in the early twentieth century. The answer is that many objects were acquired through negotiations with Yamanaka & Co., the preeminent Japanese dealer at the time. Many patrons of the Museum also purchased artworks from the company that later came to the Met.

Yamanaka & Co.'s American story began in 1894, when Yamanaka Sadajirō (1866–1936) arrived in New York and set up a small antiques shop in Chelsea. In subsequent years, the Osaka-based purveyor of Japanese art established international branches in Boston, London, Peking (now Beijing), Paris, and Shanghai. In 1917, Yamanaka's New York gallery took over a five-story building on Fifth Avenue.

Beginning in 1915, when the Met's Department of Far Eastern Art was founded, curators often turned to Yamanaka to mediate the acquisition of art from Japan. Rare Buddhist sculptures, such as the thirteenth-century Amida Nyorai and the twelfth-century Dainichi Nyorai, were acquired through the intercession of the firm. Similarly, Yamanaka was instrumental in securing for the Museum the thirteenth-century handscroll Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine, one of the earliest surviving versions of this tale. During the 1950s and 1960s, the company continued to offer works to the Met, including the Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges) screens by Ogata Kōrin.

Selected Artworks

Henry O. Havemeyer (1847–1907), founder of the American Sugar Refining Company, visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and there purchased his first Japanese works of art. He and his second wife, Louisine (1855–1929), amassed an extensive collection that ranged from Buddhist paintings, brocaded Noh robes, and colorful folding screens, to sword guards, inrō, lacquer boxes, and an assortment of tea caddies. The couple's interest in Japanese art was no doubt nurtured by their friendships with artists and collectors in Paris, and their collection included many works with stylized natural motifs in the Rinpa style, reflecting the sensibilities of French japonisme. The Havemeyers never visited Japan, and they relied on dealers—primarily Yamanaka Sadajirō (1866–1936) in New York, Matsuki Bunkio (1867–1912) in Boston, and Siegfried Bing (1838–1905) in Paris—to facilitate their collecting. Their acquisition of an early impression of Hokusai's print the "Great Wave" and the Spring Rain Collection albums of deluxe, privately commissioned poetry prints (surimono) is a testimony to their sensitivity to Japanese graphic art.

The 1929 Havemeyer bequest, which also included European paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts, was one of the most significant donations the Metropolitan had received up to that time. Henry and Louisine's children, Adaline Havemeyer (Mrs. P. H. B. Frelinghuysen, 1884–1963), Horace Havemeyer (1886–1956), and Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888–1960), inherited numerous Japanese works from their mother and continued their parent's legacy with subsequent gifts to the Museum.

Selected Artworks

The nucleus of an early Japanese collection at the Metropolitan included an important group of arms and armor assembled by Bashford Dean (1867–1928). The Japanese Arms and Armor galleries on the first floor (accessible via the nearby elevator) display many of these works acquired a century ago.

The first curator of what was then known as the Department of Far Eastern Art, Sigisbert Chrétien Bosch Reitz (1860–1938), worked at the Met from 1915 to 1927. Born in Amsterdam, he trained as a painter in Munich and Paris. He was fascinated by Japanese art and traveled to Japan in 1900, where he spent a year learning traditional painting techniques. After abandoning a career as an artist, he studied collections of Chinese ceramics in European museums. At the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, he immigrated to America and took a position at the Met.

To expand his knowledge of East Asian art, Bosch Reitz returned to Japan in 1917 and 1925–26. While there, he made several acquisitions, often with the assistance of Yamanaka & Co. The Rogers Fund, created in 1904 from the bequest of Jacob S. Rogers (died 1901), a locomotive magnate, facilitated the acquisition of several outstanding works, including the sublime statue of Dainichi Nyorai (on view in gallery 224).

Acquisitions by the Met's First Curators of East Asian Art

In the early twentieth century, the Metropolitan's collection of Japanese art remained relatively small, encompassing ceramics, baskets, netsuke, inrō, and arms and armor. To rectify this situation, Sigisbert Chrétien Bosch Reitz managed to acquire a number of important Buddhist statues and screen paintings. In connection with a trip to Kyoto in 1925–26, he secured Rough Waves by Ogata Kōrin, now one of the Rinpa masterworks in the Museum's collection. It was acquired with the help of the Fletcher Fund, which was created in 1918 from the generous gift of New York banker and stockbroker Isaac Dudley Fletcher (1844–1917).

Harvard-educated Alan Priest (1898–1969) served as curator of the Department of Far Eastern Art from 1928 through 1963. After the Second World War, when rare, high-quality Japanese works of art again became available on the market, American collectors and museums were able to build major collections. Through the intercession of Yamanaka & Co., the Met was able, in 1953, to secure Kōrin's Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges). In 1954, once again with the help of Yamanaka, the Museum added to its collection the splendid Rinpa-style screen Morning Glories by Suzuki Kiitsu.

Selected Artworks

The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the collection of Harry G. C. Packard (1914–1991) in 1975. This partial gift and purchase of over four hundred works of art—including archaeological material, medieval Buddhist sculptures and paintings, Edo-period screens and hanging scrolls, and ceramics—transformed the scope of the Met's collection and, for the first time, enabled the Museum to relate a comprehensive history of Japanese art to its audiences.

Packard served as a Japanese-language officer in the Marines during the Second World War, and, in 1945, he was stationed in a repatriation camp in Qingdao, in northern China. When he moved to Tokyo, in 1946, he first focused on collecting Japanese woodblock prints, but soon expanded his interests and made his living as a dealer. As a resident of Japan he was able to scout art from private collectors, temples, and local dealers for his clients. At the same time, he was systematically putting together his own large private collection, much of which eventually came to the Met.

The Packard collection was one of the most expensive acquisitions of a single group of objects the Museum had ever made. In order to cover the immense cost of the Packard purchase, then-Director Thomas Hoving (1931–2009) and Wen Fong, special consultant for Far Eastern Affairs, had to persuade all curatorial departments to temporarily put on hold their acquisitions for the next few years.

Selected Artworks

The current Arts of Japan galleries were opened in spring 1987, under the supervision of Curator Barbara Brennan Ford. Over eleven thousand square feet of display space was custom designed to accommodate works of every era and medium, and to enhance the viewing experience. The Shoin Room gives visitors a sense of a Momoyama architectural space, while the water stone by Isamu Noguchi provides a tranquil point and is suggestive of a Zen rock garden. The George Nakashima furniture, such as the table and chairs in gallery 227 and the benches throughout the galleries, represents contemporary design informed by traditional Japanese aesthetics.

A major acquisition of the 1980s was a set of early seventeenth-century panel paintings (fusuma-e) on Chinese themes, which are on view in gallery 230. During treatment undertaken by the Met's painting conservators, it was discovered that these works came from the Zen monastery Ryōanji, in Kyoto, famous for its rock garden.

In 1991, Roger (1916–1995) and Peggy (1919–2000) Gerry, of Roslyn, New York, donated a mid-sixteenth-century pair of folding screens, The Four Accomplishments. In 2000, the couple bequeathed to the Met their collection of Japanese domestic and export porcelain. Florence and Herbert Irving, in addition to their support of South Asian and Chinese art, have promised a superlative collection of Japanese lacquerware, some of which was displayed at the Met in 1991–92.

Selected Artworks

As an architect, interior designer, and educator, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) was greatly influenced by the art and culture of Japan. His 1893 visit to Japan's national pavilion at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago had a lasting effect on the architect. Wright first traveled to Japan in 1905, where he bought hundreds of prints. From 1916, he visited the country often while working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and during this time he deepened his knowledge of woodblock prints.

Between 1918 and 1922, Wright sold nearly four hundred Japanese prints to the Metropolitan through negotiations with Sigisbert Chrétien Bosch Reitz, most of which were eighteenth-century Kabuki actor prints by Katsukawa School artists and landscape prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai. Wright continued to collect and deal in prints until his death in 1959, often relying upon his art business to remain financially solvent.

William S. Lieberman (1924–2005) was the founding director of the Department of Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art and chairman of the Department of Twentieth-Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum. Primarily a collector of modern Western drawings and prints, Lieberman became fascinated with Yokohama prints of the early 1860s. Yokohama was one of the first Japanese ports to open to foreign trade in 1859, and these prints depict foreign visitors and document the intersection of cultures that had long been alien to one another.

Selected Artworks

Since the galleries opened in 1987, a number of donors, notably New York City collectors, have actively cooperated with curators to broaden the Museum's holdings of Japanese art. The collection of Mary Griggs Burke (1916–2012), built at first with her husband, Jackson Burke (1908–1975), stands out for both its scope and quality. In October 2015, as a sequel to this exhibition, we will celebrate Mary Burke's bequest to the Met of over three hundred works of Japanese art.

Late last year, Sylvan Barnet presented to the Metropolitan a superlative group of medieval Zen calligraphy, acquired over many years with his longtime partner, William Burto (1921–2013), some of which is on view in gallery 230. New Yorkers T. Richard Fishbein (1938–2014) and his widow, Estelle P. Bender, have pledged a collection of more than forty Edo-period paintings, which will be the focus of an exhibition at the Met in fall 2017.

Mary Wallach, along with the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation Fund and the Mary and James G. Wallach Family Foundation, has not only underwritten many of the recent exhibitions in the Japanese galleries, including this one, but has made possible several important acquisitions—such as the punctiliously painted early seventeenth-century screens Amusements at Higashiyama in Kyoto. Local collector Sue Cassidy Clark has worked closely with the department to acquire esoteric Buddhist art as well as early modern and contemporary paintings, prints, and decorative art.

The Met continues to collaborate with several enthusiastic collectors, too numerous to name, as well as with the Friends of Asian Art, the department's curatorial patron group, who share their passion with a wider audience by either lending or giving works to enhance exhibitions. In so doing, they provide us—and future generations—with the resources to make new discoveries about a vital cultural tradition that continues to evolve, enlighten, and inspire.

Selected Artworks



Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849). Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as the Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), ca. 1830–32. Edo Period (1615–1868). Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper; 10 1/8 x 14 15/16 in. (25.7 x 37.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H.O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer, 1929 (JP1847)