American Art, Exhibitions, Japanese Art

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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