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Valentine’s Day: Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf

Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf by Tang Yin; 16th century; Ink and color on silk, F1917.335; gift of Charles Lang Freer

Writing a Poem on a Crimson Leaf,” Tang Yin; China, Ming dynasty, 16th century; ink and color on silk; gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.335

In order to ensure an excellent Valentine’s Day, you’ll need a few supplies: a red (crimson) leaf, a pen, and preferably, a palace with its own stream. Compose a love poem on the leaf and let the world know your feelings. Place the leaf in the stream and watch as it flows out of sight. It will be picked up by somebody who will write a similar poem of longing next to yours and place the leaf back in the water (pay no attention to the whole upstream/downstream thing; in this scenario, water flows to the lover), on which it will return to you. Neither of you will know who wrote the other poem—but in time, the two of you will meet, fall in love, and find out, on your wedding night, that you two penned those love poems on the same crimson leaf. Bliss is guaranteed.

Though this story originated during the Tang dynasty (618–907), “writing a poem on a crimson leaf” became a metaphor in Chinese literature to describe a happy marriage destined by fate.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Learn more about Chinese art in our collections.

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Whistler Gone Wilde

James McNeill Whistler, 1885, Photogravure attributed to Mortimer Menpes (1859-1938). Signed with the butterfly and inscribed by Whistler, probably in 1899, "To Charles L. Freer—à un de ces jours!" Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer|Sackler Archives

James McNeill Whistler, 1885, Photogravure attributed to Mortimer Menpes (1859-1938). Signed with the butterfly and inscribed by Whistler, probably in 1899, “To Charles L. Freer—à un de ces jours!” Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer|Sackler Archives

I can only imagine the sparks that flew when artist James McNeill Whistler met writer Oscar Wilde, a meeting of great minds and superb wits. Both were associated with the Aesthetic movement that blossomed in England in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Wilde, who was twenty years younger than Whistler, fashioned himself as the artist’s disciple. They traveled in the same artistic circles in London, and both had a way with words. In fact, when Whistler delivered a particularly delicious bon mot, Wilde remarked, “I wish I had said that.” “You will, Oscar; you will,” was Whistler’s enviable reply.

Oscar Wilde, 1882, Sarony, (from John Cooper's Oscar Wilde in America)

Oscar Wilde, 1882, Sarony (from John Cooper’s “Oscar Wilde in America”)

Renowned for his works of art, whose decorative, nearly abstract qualities puzzled Victorian viewers accustomed to moralizing narrative, Whistler was a self-proclaimed elitist in spite of his penchant for self-promotion. Wilde, on the other hand, was a popularizer, happily lecturing audiences from London to San Francisco on the quintessentially Aesthetic topic “the House Beautiful.” Whistler ultimately tired of Wilde, who he felt was encroaching on his turf. He publicly detached himself from the writer on the evening of February 20, 1885, at Prince’s Hall, London, when Whistler delivered his Ten O’Clock Lecture. Appearing in full evening dress, Whistler intended the event as a public manifesto, in which he challenged the conventional aesthetics of the day. Breaking with the long tradition of artists creating realist works that imitated nature, Whistler argued that nature could use a little help from the artist:

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful as the musician gathers his notes. And forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.”

While presenting himself as a rare genius, Whistler cast Wilde as an “amateur” and a stalking “Dilettante.” Though Whistler did not use Wilde’s name in his speech, his description of the author was clearly recognizable to the audience.

In his review of the event, Wilde responded with this playful praise for the Ten O’Clock:

“Not merely for its clever nature and amusing jests … but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages … for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler entirely concurs.”

More verbal sparring ensued (a kind of war between the aesthetes), and the Whistler-Wilde friendship dissolved entirely. Always one to get the last word, Wilde would later base the murdered artist in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray after Whistler.

***

With Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest on stage at the nearby Shakespeare Theatre, Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, will speak about the complicated relationship between Whistler and Wilde at Harman Hall on Saturday, March 1, at 5:30 pm (rescheduled due to weather). Tickets are free, but reservations are required. More information is available at shakespearetheatre.org.

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Happy New Year of the Horse!

Horse and Groom, after Li Gonglin, 1347, Zhao Yong , (Chinese, 1291-1361), Ink and color on paper, F1945.32

Horse and Groom, after Li Gonglin, 1347,
Zhao Yong , (Chinese, 1291-1361), Ink and color on paper, F1945.32

The lunar new year begins today and celebrates the year of the horse, one of the twelve-year cycle of animals that appear in the Chinese zodiac. Dating from as early as 1000 BCE, the traditional Chinese method of counting years is based on the sixty-year rotation of the planet Jupiter (known as the “year star”) around the sun. Each sixty-year period is divided into five cycles of twelve years, and each of the twelve years is associated with a particular animal. In general, each year contains twelve lunar months of twenty-eight or twenty-nine days. As a result, lunar years vary in length and do not start or end at the same time each year. The current Year of the Horse begins today, and is observed through February 18, 2015.

According to archaeological discoveries, the character for “horse” (ma) appears in the most ancient form of Chinese writing, which dates from the fourteenth to eleventh century BCE. Surviving painted images of horses date from around the fourth century BCE. Since the species of horse native to China were not as large or strong as those from Central Asia, traders during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) imported the highly coveted “heavenly horses” (tianma) from the Central Asian kingdom of Ferghana.

Horses did not emerge as a prominent independent category in the Chinese painting tradition until the Tang dynasty (618–907). From that time on, horses appear as a recurring theme, especially in depictions of travel, trade, hunting, and military exercises and in genre paintings showing the nomadic tribes that lived to the north and west of China.

One more thing: Those born in the Year of the Horse (1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, and 2014) are said to be intelligent, strong, and energetic with an outgoing nature. They enjoy interacting with others and are good at multi-tasking, although they rarely finish projects because they’re off to the next one before they finish the last. Typically they have money issues, and when it comes to matters of the heart, they fall hard and fast.

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Yoga: A Transforming Exhibition

Crowds gathered for one last look at Yoga: The Art of Transformation during closing weekend.

Crowds gathered for one last look at Yoga: The Art of Transformation during closing weekend (photos by Neil Greentree).

We said goodbye to Yoga: The Art of Transformation over the weekend with tours and talks and ImaginAsia programs for young visitors (where else could you make your own chakra?). More than ten thousand people visited the exhibition on Saturday and Sunday to take one last look at stunning paintings and sculptures that brought to life the strong visual history of an ancient practice. Yoga newbies as well as longtime practitioners offered praise for the exhibition, as they patiently waited on lines to enter the galleries.

Taking a close look at yoginis during closing weekend.

Taking a close look at yoginis during closing weekend.

For those of you who missed the exhibition, or want to see it again, start packing your bags! Yoga: The Art of Transformation will be on view at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (February 21–May 25) and at the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 22–September 7).

#artofyoga

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In the Swim: Dolphins in Ancient Egypt

Photograph of the Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, taken by Ernst Herzfeld in 1908, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

The Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, photo by Ernst Herzfeld, 1908,
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

Alex Nagel is assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at the Freer|Sackler.

For every modern traveler to the southern Mediterranean, dolphins are a familiar image along the coast of North Africa. The ancients also loved dolphins, and dolphins, it seemed, loved them. The Roman author Pliny the Elder described how a dolphin at the settlement of Hippo Diarrhytos on the North African shore ate from people’s hands. The dolphin also offered himself to their touch, played as they swam, and often gave people a ride on its back. The Roman author Claudius Aelianus (ca. 175–235) described the dolphin as the king of sea animals. In ancient Greece, dolphins were prominently featured on coins, while in Hindu mythology the dolphin is associated with Ganga, the deity of the Ganges River.

Glass Dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

Glass dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

A year after the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) traveled the Nile River in 1909, Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), while on a trip to Egypt, acquired a collection of more than one thousand ancient Egyptian glass objects from the dealer Giovanni Dattari (1858–1923). Among them were two glass objects in the shape of a dolphin. Their original function is unknown, and today we can only guess what they might have meant to their original owners. Dattari, whom Freer had first met on a trip to Cairo in 1907, was an employee of a travel agency and also worked as a purveyor to the British Army in Egypt. His villa in Cairo was a welcoming meeting place for foreign archaeologists, Egyptologists, and businessmen. Dattari was well connected to excavations in Egypt and knew the English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), who excavated at the extensive archaeological site of Amarna on the east bank of the Nile River. Today, almost every major museum on the eastern coast of the United States is a proud holder of materials from Dattari’s collections.

Look for dolphins and other creatures in the exhibition The Nile and Ancient Egypt, opening at the Freer Gallery on December 7 and remaining on view indefinitely.

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Angry Birds?

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; Japan; late 19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; late 19th century;
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100


Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Hardly. When artists evoked avian melodies, as Thomas Dewing did in The Four Sylvan Soundsthey intended to soothe and refresh, to take the viewer out of “the harness of business” and into a more pleasant, “sylvan” realm. The sounds and scents of nature are mentioned with surprising frequency in Freer’s correspondence with artists and friends. Dewing used the sensory pleasures of a woodland ramble to induce Freer to visit him at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. “I wish you could be here,” Dewing wrote in June 1894, “taking in this cool fresh air filled with bird notes & scents of flowers.”

Two years later, the artist translated this experience into the visual language of painting, telling Freer he had begun work on a pair of screens representing “the four forest notes—the Hermit Thrush, the sound of running water, the woodpecker, and the wind through the pine trees.” These screens, now on view in Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan, incorporate a number of influences, the most direct being the natural beauty of the New England countryside. The figures were inspired by ancient Greek Tanagra figurines, and the theme came from a poem called “Wood Notes” by the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dewing’s debt to Japanese art is evident in the bifold format of the screens and the simplicity of the unframed panels. The flowers and forest leaves, some painted with a stencil, resemble the elegant, stylized patterns of many screens in Freer’s Japanese collection, along with the multisensory imagery denoting bird songs and rustling grasses.

Rectangular Dish, Japan, stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Rectangular dish; Japan; stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze;
19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Freer had purchased his first two Japanese folding screens early in 1896, just after returning from his first visit to Japan. Later that same year, Dewing began to paint The Four Sylvan Sounds. During the two years that Dewing worked on these panels, Freer acquired sixteen Japanese screens, twelve of which are now in the museum’s collection. After promising his art collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1906, Freer stipulated that his Japanese screens had to be displayed in a special gallery in a proposed new museum. He envisioned the space as a link between galleries devoted to Dewing and other American artists and those featuring the art of Whistler. This early arrangement underscored Freer’s belief in cross-cultural aesthetic connections between East and West—a principle theme in the current exhibition as well.

Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan remains on view through May 18, 2014.

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Yoga: The Art of Transformation opens Saturday, October 19

Vishnu Vishvarupa India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800–1820 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28 cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mrs. Gerald  Clark, IS.33-2006

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800–1820, Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mrs. Gerald Clark, IS.33-2006

Through masterpieces of Indian sculpture and painting, Yoga: The Art of Transformation explores yoga’s goals; its Hindu as well as Buddhist, Jain, and Sufi manifestations; its means of transforming body and consciousness; and its profound philosophical foundations. The first exhibition to present this leitmotif of Indian visual culture, it also examines the roles that yogis and yoginis played in Indian society over two thousand years.

Follow the conversation at #artofyoga

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September 11, 1893

Swami Vivekananda on the platform at the Parliament of Religions, September 1893.

Swami Vivekananda on the platform at the Parliament of World Religions, September 1893.

September 11 is a day we’ve come to associate with intolerance, but 120 years ago that was not the case. In September 1893, Swami Vivekananda traveled from India to the United States to address the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. “Sisters and brothers of America…” the swami said, and was met with thunderous applause from the nearly seven thousand people in attendance. Only thirty years old, he wowed the audience, conveying a message of hope and peace. Wearing his orange robes, he spoke as a Hindu monk with a universal message: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” Reporting on the event, the New York Herald wrote: “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.”

Swami Vivekananda was also the author of Raja Yoga, a groundbreaking treatise that became a bestseller in India and around the world. In the book, Vivekananda writes that “Raga Yoga. . .never asks the question of what our religion is. We are human beings, that is sufficient” (Raja Yoga, 1896). His teachings helped shape modern discourses on yoga, which we will explore in greater depth when Yoga: The Art of Transformation opens on October 19.

Listen to Swami Vivekananda’s speech from September 11, 1893.

Learn more about Swami Vivekananda and his connection to Charles Lang Freer.

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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.

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Eels in July

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

Ascending Eels by Kimura Buzan; early 20th century; F2008.2a-c

The Japanese words for the subject of this painting, unagi nobori, mean “a fast, rocket-like rise.” Eels have been an important delicacy in Japan since the Edo period (1615–1868). Eating eel during the hot, humid summer was believed to increase stamina. It is still customary to consume the fish on a certain midsummer day on the lunar calendar that usually falls in late July.

Confident sweeps of the brush define with utmost simplicity the forms of two eels and ashrimp; gold pigment highlights the edges of their bodies. The artist’s elegant, hand-painted design of maples and grasses serves as a harmonious silk mounting for the painting. Kimura Buzan studied painting under Kawabata Gyokusho (1842–1913), an artist who knew both European and Japanese painting methods. Kimura also studied at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (founded 1876) and was active in exhibitions of the Nihon Bijutsuin, an association of artists founded in 1898.

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