Category Archives: A Closer Look

Super Bowl Sunday

Bowl, possibly Han dynasty, bronze, F1946.18a-b

Bowl, possibly Han dynasty, bronze, F1946.18a-b

We’ve already picked a winner for Super Bowl Sunday. This wonderful bronze bowl from Inner Mongolia was created between 206 BCE and 220 CE. It is approximately seven inches in height and features a Mongolian horse lowering its head to drink from the bowl. Amazing and cute at the same time. Take that Puppy Bowl!

With thousands of bowls and other vessels to choose from in the Freer|Sackler collections, picking a favorite is never easy. To learn more about our collections, begin here.

#superbowlsunday

Almost Perfect: Maud Franklin and Whistler’s Wistful Impressions

 

Pink note: The Novelette

Pink note: The Novelette; James McNeill Whistler, early 1880s; watercolor on paper; F1902.158a-c

Maggie Abe, a student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, spent the summer in the Freer|Sackler’s American art department, where she was the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies intern and did research for an ongoing technical and art historical study of Whistler’s watercolors. She will graduate from Colby College in May 2014 with BAs in studio art and biology. The Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies is supported by the generosity of the Lunder Foundation and comprises the Freer|Sackler, the Colby College Museum of Art, the University of Glasgow, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite accusations of reducing them to arrangements, notes, and harmonies in his paintings, the women whom James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) kept for company were driving influences in his life and art. Although he vocally eschewed narrative in his works to focus on color, his feelings for his female subjects are couched in the subtleties of his compositions. Beneath carefully crafted color harmonies linger the unspoken wishes, unrealized fantasies, and quiet lamentations of a man probably not as aloof as he would have had the public believe.

Whistler’s complicated relationship with his long-term mistress and model Maud Franklin (1857–1941) provides the basis for several sentimental watercolors in the Freer collection. They were together for more than a decade, but because they never married, Maud was excluded from society. These watercolors are tender impressions of how Whistler saw Maud and wished she could be seen by his acquaintances: as his significant other deserving of their respect.

Pink note: The Novelette, Note in Opal: Breakfast, and Bravura in Brown, all painted from 1883–84, are united by a common formula. In all three, Maud is alone, but props such as empty chairs and rumpled bed sheets suggest her companion has only just stepped out. Reading or playing the piano, she is introspectively occupied: a demure woman in an attractive, but not ostentatious space. Unlike Whistler’s earlier oil Arrangement in White and Black, in which Maud’s youth and immodesty are hard to ignore, these watercolors do not put on a show, but rather leave a gentle impression. To Whistler, they were probably bittersweet, allowing him to pretend that his life with Maud was as pleasant and stable as the watercolors suggest. In reality, it was only on paper that she would be received by the homes of proper society.

Notwithstanding their volatile relationship, Whistler painted Maud with great affection in these watercolors. She is repeatedly depicted in rooms with art, the obsession of Whistler’s world. Paintings feature in the décor of all three rooms; indeed, one scholar suggests that the color of Maud’s blouse in Pink note: The Novelette is meant to connect her with the pink-tinged painting on the mantle. As Maud posed for more than 60 of Whistler’s paintings, drawings, and prints, it is hardly surprising that he would associate her with his art. By placing them together in these images, Whistler is acknowledging her influence in the development of his passion.

While such sentiment for a mistress seems to go against the grain of Whistler’s general reputation, it is important to note that these paintings were the products of his standing as an aging artist with an established name. Unlike the earlier days when he lived with his first mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, as a relatively unknown artist with something to prove, 50-year-old Whistler did not feel content living as a rogue on the fringes of society.

Whistler and Maud’s relationship began to suffer in 1879, when the artist went bankrupt and was forced to face reality. When he suddenly proposed to Beatrix Godwin (1857–1896) in 1888—a marriage that would provide him with stability, order, and favorable connections—it may have been that the opportune moment had finally presented itself after years of mounting discomfort.

The Sisters

The Sisters; James McNeill Whistler, 1894-95; lithograph on paper (transfer lithograph); F1903.82

In his marriage to Beatrix, Whistler seems to have attained the harmony that he had been courting in his watercolors. The wistful depictions of Maud in solitude are replaced by accounts of Beatrix and her sisters delighting in domestic bliss, though it would not last long. Hints of Beatrix’s terminal cancer surface in lithographs such as The Sisters—all would be well in this interior if it were not for Beatrix’s languishing posture. She appears weak beside her upright sister, and there is an air of concern polluting the peaceful scene.

The tables turned in Whistler’s art: in the watercolors, he altered Maud to satisfy his desire to change reality, but in later depictions of his ailing wife Beatrix, his art became an outlet for his grief. This time, it was an inescapable sickness that snapped Whistler from his reverie.

They Came. They Saw. They Took Their Time.

Taking part in Slow Art Day in the Freer Gallery.

Taking part in Slow Art Day in the Freer Gallery.

David Nash is program assistant in the Education Department at Freer|Sackler.

On Saturday, April 27, ten enthusiastic visitors joined Education Specialist Hillary Rothberg and me for Slow Art Day. Joining more than 250 other museums worldwide, we looked at four objects for fifteen minutes each and thought deeply about what the objects represented and how they were crafted. We examined a third-century frieze that depicts the life of the Buddha and sketched it in the gallery. Looking through handmade telescopes, we gazed at ancient scenes of romance and destruction on Japanese screens. We circled four Guardian Kings and looked closely at them from four directions, and we listened to a recording of a piano playing a soft nocturne as we looked upon night scenes from the nineteenth century.

After our time in the galleries, we made our way to Teaism and enjoyed a casual lunch, sharing our thoughts on art and what we’d seen over a slow and delightful meal. Everyone expressed what art means to them and how they were affected by the day’s activities. We took our time listening to each other and offering comments.

Finally, as lunch ended, twelve newly acquainted friends parted ways. Each went on his or her separate path, back to the normal pace of life. However, with memories of this day as a guide, perhaps each will continue the practice of looking at art slowly.

We hope you’ll join us for next year’s Slow Art Day on April 12, 2014!

Charles Lang Freer: A Wild and Crazy Guy?

Charles Lang Freer ca. 1905, Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives.

Charles Lang Freer ca. 1905, Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler, takes a closer look at American art this month in honor of the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened its doors to the public on May 2, 1923.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Charles Lang Freer, captain of industry, connoisseur of fine art, and, eventually, founder of the Freer Gallery, was also a fan of banjo music. In 1897, he arranged for a famous banjo trio, the Doré Brothers, to travel from New York City to Detroit, where they performed at a formal dinner at the exclusive Detroit Club in honor of club-member Russell Alger’s appointment as Secretary of War under President McKinley. (Alger, a Civil War veteran, had made a fortune in the lumber business and was a major shareholder in Freer’s Peninsular Car Company.) On the evening of January 20, the Doré Brothers played a specially commissioned piece, “The Detroit Club March.” Freer, writing to American artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (another Doré Brothers fan), praised their performance as a great success.

Was there a wild and crazy guy behind that pince-nez and starched collar? Maybe … but then again, maybe not. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, there was a movement among some musicians to “elevate” the banjo, distancing it from its African origins and subsequent association with minstrel shows. By the 1880s, the banjo had become nearly as popular as the piano among wealthy, novelty-seeking young women. It was a full-blown fad on college campuses, whose banjo clubs typically performed orchestra-fashion, with guitars and mandolins. Professionals, among them the Doré Brothers, appeared in tuxedos and played serious European music arranged for banjo: well-known works by Wagner, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Chopin were all part of the banjo repertoire in the 1890s. “The Detroit Club March” wasn’t exactly high art, though, and it’s nice to think of what one Gilded Age critic called the banjo’s “half-barbaric twang … in harmony with the unmechanical melodies of the birds” enlivening a winter gathering of capitalists in black tie.

[Sources: Philadelphia Music and Drama, 1891; Thomas Wilmer to Charles Lang Freer, February 16, [1897] and March 2, [1897], Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives]

Slow Down for Art!

Up Close and Slow: Taking a good look at a work of art at Freer|Sackler.

Visitors take a good look at a work of art at Freer|Sackler (photo by Cory Grace).

Hillary Rothberg is an educator at Freer|Sackler.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. —Henry David Thoreau

The above quote is this year’s motto for Slow Art Day—and how true it is. While we may all look at an object together, what we see as individuals varies widely. And it is that subjectivity that makes art such a powerful tool. Some see the intricacy of design and technique in a piece of art; others see the emotion and poignancy in the story told by that piece. By slowing down and really taking time to view a work, we can deliberate on art in a meditative style, exploring its depth and meaning, and can understand better its craftsmanship.

On Saturday, April 27, the Freer and Sackler Galleries will take part in the rapidly growing Slow Art Day movement. We, along with more than 250 other art venues across the globe, will lead a group in looking at art objects. Then, we will discuss what we’ve discovered over lunch. It’s an opportunity to see and think deeply, and to share with each other the meaning of art in our lives.

Want to learn more about Slow Art Day? Check out this interview with founder Phil Terry on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s blog, Eye Level.

Weeping Cherry

A weeping cherry tree in full bloom in the Sackler's Moongate garden.

A weeping cherry tree in full bloom in the Sackler’s Moongate garden.

Cory Grace is Digital Imaging & Asset Specialist at Freer|Sackler.

The other morning, when on assignment in the Sackler pavilion, I caught a glimpse of a weeping cherry tree in the Moongate Garden in the camera’s viewfinder and knew I had to go outside and take a photograph. The cherry trees are in full bloom, and the city is full of visitors heading to the tidal basin for a look. But how many people know about this one? I grabbed the camera and went outside. A female mallard swam in the pool, and a couple of tourists meandered through the garden as I captured the most graceful and naturally beautiful tree in the city.

Cyrus in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

Cyrus Cylinder announcement in Times Square

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning opens at the Sackler Gallery on March 9, and the exhibition is already generating buzz on a mega-size scale. One of history’s most iconic objects and one of the British Museum’s most celebrated artifacts, the Cyrus Cylinder has never before been on view in the United States. In cuneiform writing, the object’s inscription proclaims Cyrus’s victory over Babylon in 539 BCE. It also decrees religious freedom for his newly conquered people—a statement that has inspired generations of philosophers, rulers, and statesmen.

While it’s pictured in Times Square, we hope the Cylinder inspires visitors and passersby. It’s interesting to see a 2,600-year-old object depicted on an electronic screen in one of the busiest cities in the modern world. I like how it finds itself situated between contemporary words and signs, caught between “Engage Opportunity” and a Europa Cafe.

To learn more about the Cyrus Cylinder and its historic importance, view the TED talk by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. Then, visit the Freer on Thursday, March 7, to see him discuss “The Many Meanings of the Cyrus Cylinder.”

Snow in Japan

Dressed in Japanese kimono, young women who have turned or will turn 20 this year, the traditional age of adulthood in Japan, walk in the snow following a Coming of Age ceremony in Tokyo earlier this month. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Japan was recently socked by a storm that left a few inches of snow in the capital of Tokyo and more than six feet on the island of Hokkaido. To get my fill of a snowy Japanese landscape, I can travel to Japan, check out photographs of the storm online, or have a look at some of my favorite works of art in the Freer|Sackler collection.

Winter, from Beauty of the Seasons by Isoda Koryusai, late 18th century, color and gold on silk; F1902.39

Artist and designer Isoda Koryusai produced a series of “beauty” prints in the 1770s. Like the Tokyo women in the photograph above, this woman is dressed in traditional kimono and holds an umbrella to protect her from the snow. I love the blue rim of the large, rice paper umbrella and the red that peeks out from the layers of her garments, against the gold background and the white hush of snow.

In 1760 Edo, kabuki producers adapted a famous Noh drama dance routine called The Heron Maiden (Sagi musume). The protagonist was associated with snowfall and possibly inspired an interest in images of courtesans in snow. Koryusai designed woodblock prints precisely referencing the play, but any painting of a maiden in snow suggested a connection to the general theme. This painting forms a pair with Summer, in which a woman holds on to an umbrella twisted by a downpour.

The nearly fifty works by Koryusai—prints, paintings, and printed books—in the Freer|Sackler collections focus on the fashionable, no matter the season.

Freer @ 90: Early Acquisitions

Satsuma ware bottle by Kano Tangen from the Edo period, acquired by Charles Lang Freer in 1892.

This year, we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art. When it opened in 1923, the Freer became the first fine art museum on the Smithsonian campus. But the story is older than that: In 1906, Freer offered his collections of Asian and American art to the nation, a gift he had proposed to President Theodore Roosevelt the year before.

In the late 1880s, Freer began collecting American works of art, most notably paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler. It was Whistler who turned his patron’s attention to the East. In 1887, Freer purchased his first Asian art object: a Japanese fan, which he bought from Takayanagi Tozo, an importer of “high class Japanese art objects and a choice collector of bric-a-brac” with a storefront in New York City. From the same dealer, in 1892, Freer acquired his first Japanese ceramic: an 18th-century Satsuma ware jar with an underglaze blue decoration (pictured above) that reminded Freer of Whistler’s landscapes. In 1893, Freer again made a purchase from Takayanagi: his first Chinese painting, a small Ming dynasty scroll of herons.

Freer’s interest in Asia led him to take multiple tours of the continent, his first in 1894 and his last in 1911. By the end of that final visit to Asia, Freer was an internationally recognized collector and connoisseur of Asian art.

Throughout this anniversary year, we’ll take a look at some of the highlights from the more than 24,000 objects in the Freer Gallery’s renowned collection.