Press release

Discovering Japanese Art
American Collectors and The Met

Discovering Japanese Art: American Collectors and the Met

February 14–September 27, 2015

Exhibition Location: Arts of Japan Galleries, 223–232

The 100th anniversary in 2015 of the Department of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers an ideal opportunity to explore the history of the Museum’s collection of Japanese art. Showcasing more than 200 masterworks in a variety of media, Discovering Japanese Art: American Collectors and The Met will tell the story of how the Museum built its comprehensive collection of Japanese art beginning in the early 1880s, when the Museum 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 monastery Ryōanji in Kyoto will be on display. Spanning ancient to modern times, the exhibition will explore the trends that shaped art collecting and the reception of Japanese art in the United States. Moreover, it will shed light on key American collectors and curators whose passion for Japanese art helped the Museum build its now world-renowned collection. About 70 works will be rotated into the exhibition in June.

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

Early American Collectors of Japanese Art [Gallery 223]

The story of collecting Japanese art in America only began after the Japan-U.S. “Treaty of Peace and Amity” was signed in 1854, when wealthy art lovers could begin to travel to Japan and have direct access to the traditional culture and decorative arts of the long-isolated country. The opening room of the exhibition thus focuses on collections formed by the pioneer American travelers and artists who visited Japan. The 1870s was also a decade of growing interest in the Japanese decorative arts in America, engendered in part by the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the first official World’s Fair in the United States, held in Philadelphia. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) himself had a collection of Asian art to provide models of techniques and designs for sumptuous goods for New York’s social elite. 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 patrons of the Museum. Highlights of the Moore collection, including metal ware and bamboo baskets, will be featured in this section.

The first official bequest to the Museum, in 1881, was the collection of Stephen Whitney Phoenix (1839–1881), son of a wealthy New York merchant and political family. On view will be a handful of the finest Japanese lacquers that had already been put on loan to the Museum in 1873–74, when The Met’s fledgling collections were first displayed in the Douglas Mansion at 128 West 14th Street. Other Americans who honeymooned and did “curio” shopping in Japan played a major role in augmenting the Museum’s collections. Charles Stewart Smith (1832–1909), a Trustee of The Met, was involved in the dry goods business and primarily collected European paintings. Yet while on honeymoon with his third wife in Japan in 1892, he became enamored of Japanese paintings and ceramics. Highlights of the large Smith bequest that will be on display include highly refined Nabeshima porcelains, the hyper-meticulous Peacock and Peonies hanging scroll by Tani Bunchō (1763–1840), and an impressive array of ink paintings on bird-and-flower subjects by Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889), one of the greatest traditional painters of the Meiji period.

A section of the first gallery will also be devoted to a display of netsuke, the small sculptural ivory toggles used to attach lacquer inrō(portable medicine case) to men’s kimono sashes. Most of them were part of a donation of 2,500 netsuke in 1910 by Mrs. Russell Sage (Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, 1828–1918), an enlightened philanthropist of New York.

Yamanaka & Co. and The Met [Gallery 224] 

From 1895, Yamanaka & Co. established itself in New York as a purveyor of Japanese art .The firm, especially Yamanaka Sadajirō(1866-1936), played a crucial role in shaping the Japanese art collections of the Metropolitan, and worked closely with various prominent New York collectors and patrons. For instance, in 1925 Yamanaka was instrumental in The Met’s acquisition of the 13th-century handscroll masterpiece Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Shrine, considered one of the finest surviving versions of this tale anywhere, including Japan. Other Buddhist art masterpieces acquired through Yamanaka will be on view in the Buddhist Altar Room.

The Havemeyer Collection [Gallery 225]

In 1876 Henry O. Havemeyer (1847–1907) and Samuel Colman visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, at which Havemeyer purchased Japanese lacquer boxes, inrō, and textiles—the beginning of a massive collection of Japanese art that he and his second wife Louisine (1855–1929) eventually donated to The Met. At their Upper East Side mansion, designed by Colman and Tiffany, the Havemeyers’ grand collection of Rembrandt portraits, Impressionist paintings, and Degas bronzes (also bequeathed to The Met) were juxtaposed with Japanese and Chinese objects. The Havemeyer Collection partly reflects the aesthetic sensibilities of French Japonisme, which no doubt was nurtured by Louisine’s friendship with the painter Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) and their collecting interest in Impressionist artists who were themselves inspired by Japanese art. Hokusai’s Great Wave, which the Havemeyers acquired—widely regarded as one of the finest early impressions of the print—will be on view in the first rotation.

The First Curators of Asian Art: S. C. Bosch Reitz and Alan Priest [Gallery 226] The first curator of what was then called the Department of Far Eastern Art, Sigisbert Chretien Bosch Reitz, served in the Museum from 1915 through 1927. He became fascinated with Japanese art and even traveled to Japan in 1900–1901 to study traditional Japanese painting techniques. Bosch Reitz convinced Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), who had amassed an astonishing collection of Japanese woodblock prints, to sell part of his collection to the Museum between 1918 and 1922. Dynamic and subtly colored actor portraits by Katsukawa-school artists of the late 18th century, which so intrigued the great architect, will be on view in the exhibition’s print gallery. In connection with one of his trips to Japan in 1926, Bosch Reitz also managed to secure another important work of art from Kyoto, Rough Waves, by Ogata Kōrin, one of the Rinpa masterworks in the Metropolitan’s collection.

Alan Priest (1898–1969) served as curator of Far Eastern Art from 1928 through 1963. After World War II, major works of art became available on the art market. In 1953 the Museum acquired one of the most magnificent Rinpa screens, Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges) by Ogata Kōrin. The following year another splendid Rinpa screen, Morning Glories by Suzuki Kiitsu, was purchased from Yamanaka. Also on display will be a screen masterpiece that came to the collection in 1957: the finely and meticulously painted Battles of the Hōgen and Heiji Eras, dating to the early 17th century.

The Transformative Acquisition of the Harry Packard Collection [Galleries 227–229]

The Metropolitan Museum acquired the collection of the art collector and dealer of Japanese art Harry G. C. Packard (1914-1991) in 1975. This acquisition of more than 400 works of art allowed the Museum for the first time to relate a comprehensive history of Japanese art to American and international audiences. A cross-section of the more than 400 artworks, including archeological material, medieval Buddhist sculptures and paintings, Edo-period screens and hanging scrolls, and a choice collection of ceramics, in one fell swoop transformed the scope of the Japanese collection. Several of the screen and hanging scroll masterpieces from the Packard Collection will be rotated in the course of the exhibition, and sliding-door panels with the Old Plum by Kano Sansetsu (1590–1651) will be on display in the Shoin Room.

The final three galleries of the exhibition will feature more recent acquisitions dating from the 1980s to the present. For the first time in more than 10 years the Museum will put on special display the sliding-door panels that once belonged to the Ryōanji Zen monastery in Kyoto. They were given to The Met in 1989 in honor of Michael Mansfield, who was the longest serving ambassador to Japan, and his wife. Other works to be rotated in this final section include important examples of Japanese pre-modern painting and calligraphy as well as decorative arts from American private collections of Japanese art—Roger and Peggy Gerry, Florence and Herbert Irving, Sylvan Barnet and William Burto, T. Richard Fishbein, and Estelle P. Bender—that have been donated or promised to the Museum.

The penultimate gallery of the exhibition will celebrate two major acquisitions of the past two years that were made possible through the generosity of the Mary and James G. Wallach Foundation: The Arthur and Charlotte Vershbow Collection of Japanese Illustrated Books—selected from a consummate collection of over 250 titles of woodblock-printed volumes—and an early 17th-century genre screen, Amusements in Higashiyama in Kyoto. The exhibition will end with a superb selection of contemporary calligraphy, as well as graphic art donated recently by still-active New York–based collectors who are associated with the Museum as Friends of Asian Art.

The exhibition is organized by Monika Bincsik, Assistant Curator in the Department of Asian Art.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum will offer a variety of educational programs, including gallery tours.

The exhibition will be featured on the Museum’s website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter via the hashtags #DiscoveringJapaneseArt and #AsianArt100.

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September 22, 2015

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)
Katsushika Hokusai
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1830–32
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, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929

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