Chinese Painting Conservation in Action

Marshal Xin of Thunder

Marshal Xin of Thunder at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Chinese painting Marshal Xin of Thunder at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a very large work on silk, approximately twelve feet tall. Dating to the Ming dynasty, it is in poor condition, with many creases, and has been in need of conservation treatment. The size of the painting makes it very difficult to work on, which is one reason I was invited to come to Boston this August to help.

Through the MFA’s special project Conservation in Action: Demons and Demon Quellers—which refers to the painting’s subject—the conservators remounted the painting in the gallery, allowing visitors to watch them at work. Among the many reasons that this was an exciting project for me was that it provided an opportunity to work with another team of conservators. I spent two weeks collaborating with Jing Gao, senior Chinese painting conservator; Hsin-Chen Tsai, associate conservator; and Jane Tan Ying Hui, intern from the Heritage Conservation Centre in Singapore.

Before I arrived at the MFA, the conservators had already begun to treat the painting. I arrived in time to help them clean it, remove the old backing, and reline the painting. Working on an oversized painting like this requires very good teamwork.

Treating "Marshal Xin of Thunder"

To clean the painting, we sprayed water on it and then placed Chinese xuan paper on the surface to absorb the discolored water. This technique of “blotter washing” is an effective and safe way to clean superficial stains. To treat the mold stains found on the back of the painting, we used solvents, which reduced the more difficult stains, followed by washing with water.

Treating "Marshal Xin of Thunder"

Cleaning the painting also helped to separate its layers, making it easier to remove the backing papers. After cleaning was complete, we turned the painting face down and carefully removed the old lining using tweezers. Because the painting was so large, we had to work in sections. Each day, we were able to remove one section of the old lining and then immediately attach a new lining.

Treating "Marshal Xin of Thunder"

During this process, we found some areas where color on the back of the painting had stuck to the old lining paper. To preserve the original pigments, we did not remove the backing paper but laid it back in place and worked around these areas. If we had removed the old lining, it would have changed the appearance of the image on the front, which would have gone against the mission of our conservation treatment.

Treating "Marshal Xin of Thunder"

I found the process of relining the painting to be very tiring. The artwork is so large, and we had to brush across the entire surface. Visitors, though, appeared to be most interested in this step because many had never seen conservators using traditional Chinese techniques. Even though it was hard work, it was very rewarding when we completed the new lining.

Treating "Marshal Xin of Thunder"

Treating "Marshal Xin of Thunder"

The experience at the MFA was very special because it was my first time treating a painting in a public gallery. During treatment, visitors could come by and take a look at what we were doing. Docents were available to explain the process so that people who are unfamiliar with Chinese painting conservation could understand our work.

I also think that it’s very good for the Chinese painting conservation community to work together on large projects. This allows conservators with different backgrounds to work together, share ideas, and discuss solutions and strategies for conservation. I have learned to deal with new challenges from working on a large painting, and I am thankful for the strong relationship between the conservators at the MFA and the Freer|Sackler.

Treating "Marshal Xin of Thunder"

From October 27 to November 7, I have returned to the MFA to help the conservation team apply the final lining to the painting. Follow along with our progress on MFA’s website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Behind the Scenes: A Perfect Harmony

© 59 Productions 2017

This is a guest blog by our friends at 59 Productions.

59 Productions was approached by the Freer|Sackler to help tell the story of the Freer Gallery of Art’s genesis and to bring its collections to life in a fun and spectacular way. The aim was to create a large-scale public artwork to mark the museums’ reopening after a two-year renovation. Using animation and projection-mapping immediately seemed like the best approach: the technique allows us to celebrate the architecture of the Freer building by using its Italianate facade as a vast canvas for bespoke animations, inspired by the museum’s history and collection.

© 59 Productions 2017

One of the main challenges was to find a way to tell the story of both the museum and its charismatic and visionary founder, Charles Lang Freer, in a predominantly visual way. We were keen to avoid voice-over and text to ensure that the piece felt exciting rather than didactic, and to make it appeal to international audiences and non-English speakers.

© 59 Productions 2017

From a technical perspective, the 59 Productions team built on its experience of producing projection-mapping events for a range of iconic institutions around the world, including the Sydney Opera House, the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and Edinburgh Castle. We took a laser scan of the Freer Gallery’s facade, which allowed 59’s technical team to produce a very accurate 3-D model. This model was then used to generate “UVs”—essentially unwrapped nets that represent each surface of the building. Animated material was then created to fit these templates before being remapped onto the building’s architecture using a media server system. The piece could then be previsualized in 3-D, allowing the creative team to review animated content mapped onto a virtual version of the building from the comfort of our London studio.

© 59 Productions 2017

From a creative point of view, 59 Productions’ team of writers and researchers worked closely with the Freer|Sackler Archives staff and curators to craft a narrative that does justice to the Freer’s complex history but is also visually powerful and easy to follow. This “shooting script” was then used to create a series of visual briefs for animators who, using a variety of 2-D and 3-D animation techniques, worked on separate chapters of the piece, each of which tells a different aspect of the museum’s story. The show also features a specially curated soundtrack featuring classical and contemporary music from around the globe.

© 59 Productions 2017

The final result is a twelve-minute whirlwind tour of the museum’s history. The story spans the whole of the last century, from Charles Lang Freer’s industrial roots to his friendship with James McNeill Whistler, to the birth and growth of his collection of Asian art and the eventual bequest of said collection to the American people. The piece is not just a celebration of Freer the man, but also of his philosophy—that art has the power to enrich everybody’s lives. Freer believed passionately in cross-cultural exchange and that the appreciation of beauty is universal, crossing borders both geographical and temporal.

© 59 Productions 2017

A Perfect Harmony looks back at the Freer Gallery’s history, but it also looks forward to the continued exchange of ideas between America and the rest of the world. At a time of much uncertainty and division, we are delighted to remind everyone in Washington of the values that Charles Lang Freer enshrined in his museum. We hope that the piece will inspire people to not only visit the museum, but also to take some of its founder’s appreciation of beauty and his spirit of tolerance out into the world.

Don’t miss A Perfect Harmony when it debuts at the Freer|Sackler’s IlluminAsia festival. The piece will be shown four times on the evening of Saturday, October 14.

Revisiting Whistler’s Neighborhood: The House with the Copper Door

Cheyne Walk Looking East from Cheyne Row; James Hedderly; photograph; ca. 1870; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Cheyne Walk Looking East from Cheyne Row; James Hedderly; photograph; ca. 1870; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Last fall, the Freer|Sackler’s curator of American art, Lee Glazer, traveled to London with artist Darren Waterston to speak at the Chelsea Arts Club, the headquarters of the Whistler Society. Simon Wartnaby, the society’s president, had invited them to give a lecture on Filthy Lucre, Waterston’s reimagining of Whistler’s Peacock Room in a state of sumptuous decay. In the dinner that followed, Wartnaby mentioned that he had recently seen photographs of Whistler’s funeral. The images prompted him to explore the history of the house at 74 Cheyne Walk, the last of four homes along the river Thames that Whistler occupied over the course of four decades. Below, Wartnaby reveals the house’s little-known history.

74 Cheyne Walk on the day of Whistler’s funeral. Library of Congress, Pennell-Whistler Collection

74 Cheyne Walk on the day of Whistler’s funeral. Library of Congress, Pennell-Whistler Collection

Landlord-Tenant Drama

Known as “the house with the copper door,” the building at 74 Cheyne Walk was designed by architect Charles Robert Ashbee (1863–1942) for himself and his new wife. In fact, Ashbee designed several homes on the fashionable street. The Ashbees lived in no. 74 in 1897 and 1898; Whistler moved there in 1902 and remained in the home until his death the next year.

A synthesis of the Arts and Crafts and Queen Anne styles, Ashbee’s designs were eccentric, but this home was said to be especially so. Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Whistler’s official biographers, reported that Whistler found the home strange and underwhelming. According to the Pennells in their 1921 book The Whistler Journal, the artist reported that 74 Cheyne Walk was “a successful example of the disastrous effect of art upon the British middle classes. When I look at the copper front door and all the little odd decorative touches throughout the house, I ask myself what I am doing there, anyhow? But the studio is fine, I have decorated it for myself, gone back to the old scheme of grey.”

Architect Charles Robert Ashbee. Image courtesy

Architect Charles Robert Ashbee. Image courtesy

The Pennells also provided their own description of the house, whose design they believed to be flawed. The couple described the home’s pitfalls, revealing that the layout proved tricky for an older Whistler to navigate:

It was a ridiculous place anyway, the studio on the ground floor, which was damp, the dining and bed rooms at the top where he had to climb to eat and to sleep until the Doctor stopped him. After that he slept in a front room on a level with the street . . . only one window in it, with panes so small you could hardly look out of it more like a prison cell than a bedroom. The whole affair was tragic.

In addition to its design flaws, the house was next door to a construction site. The noise sent Whistler into a rage. Even worse, the home being built next door was also designed by Ashbee, who had neglected to mention the project when he and his wife rented their home to Whistler. In typical Whistler fashion, he confronted the couple, arguing and protesting by refusing to pay his rent. At the advice of his doctor, Whistler even left the home for a short time. His frail health ended up being a saving grace: the Ashbees only refrained from evicting him because he was ill. Still, the Pennells claimed that the construction next to 74 Cheyne Walk “had a great deal to do with shortening his life.”

Whistler’s Later Work

Several photos of 74 Cheyne Walk were published in 1903, though it is unclear exactly when they were taken. These pictures show the interior of the home and convey what it may have looked like during Whistler’s residency.

The house’s studio space was a redeeming feature. Previously, Whistler had had a studio separate from his residence, in London Mews. Having a studio in his home ­­not only saved him money but also a commute—not unimportant since Whistler had become quite frail by this time.

In the studio at no. 74, Whistler worked on and stored a number of paintings before he died. One was a portrait of George Washington Vanderbilt. Whistler had painted most of the portrait in 1897, adding finishing touches in 1898. However, he never handed the work over to Vanderbilt, insisting it still wasn’t exactly right, and he brought the portrait with him when he moved to 74 Cheyne Walk. The painting was found in Whistler’s studio after his death in 1903. By that time, Vanderbilt had given up on ever receiving the portrait and commissioned one from John Singer Sargent to take its place. The two men remained close, however: Vanderbilt happened to be in London when Whistler died and was a pallbearer at the funeral.

Whistler did begin a painting of Charles Lang Freer in the Cheyne Walk studio. And in the last year of his life, Whistler took great joy in painting Richard Canfield, a rather notorious American casino owner who became a connoisseur of Whistler’s art, amassing a great number of his works in a short period of time.

The Neighborhood

To Whistler, the location and the context of 74 Cheyne Walk, rather than the house itself, held the most significance. Chelsea was a hip, up-and-coming neighborhood in London, and Cheyne Walk was the street to live on. Other notable nineteenth-century figures who resided there included Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and George Eliot.

A map of London from 1868. Cheyne Walk is visible just along the river.

A map of London from 1868. Cheyne Walk is visible just along the river.

Chelsea served as the subject matter, setting, and inspiration for many of Whistler’s artworks. 74 Cheyne Walk wasn’t just his last house: it was the last in his series of homes in Chelsea, and it marked the end of Whistler’s four-decade-long presence in the area. During the Second World War, the building was destroyed, following serious damage by a land mine.

Visit Whistler’s Neighborhood to see a gallery of his artwork and photographs of different locations in Chelsea, as well as a map that puts these visuals in context.


This quotations cited in this post are from Pennell and Pennell’s The Whistler Journal, published in 1921. The National Gallery of Art’s website as well as Daniel Sutherland’s Whistler: A Life For Art’s Sake also informed this post.
Simon Wartnaby is an architectural and art historian and president of the Whistler Society in London.

Revisiting Whistler’s Neighborhood: Freer and Whistler’s Final Days Together

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

“A gentler, nobler, purer soul never entered heaven if such a place exists. His art and his life are one!”
—Charles Lang Freer to his business partner, Frank Hecker, July 18, 1903, one day after Whistler’s death


The Freer|Sackler’s grand reopening on October 14 has prompted reflection upon the relationship between the Freer Gallery of Art’s founder, Charles Lang Freer, and his favorite American artist, James McNeill Whistler. Whistler and Freer were not the typical artist-patron duo. They were close friends who genuinely cared for each other, their relationship extending beyond their shared belief in Whistler’s artistic genius. Freer’s loyalty and respect for Whistler is displayed not only in his glowing comments and enthusiastic collecting, but through his actions in the final days of Whistler’s life and the time just after the artist’s death.

Whistler’s Final Days

Freer and Whistler met in 1890, but it was only in the last few years of the artist’s life that they spent a lot of time together, meeting throughout Europe and especially in London, Whistler’s adopted home. At the time, Whistler lived at 74 Cheyne Walk with his two sisters-in-law, Rosalind and Ethel; he had grown close to his late wife’s family following her death in 1896. Whistler made Rosalind his executrix and sole heir. She worked hard to care for him and, later, to preserve his art historical legacy.

Freer was also a source of support and friendship. Whistler was put on bed rest following a heart attack he had on a 1902 trip to Holland that he and Freer took together. In the aftermath of this incident, Freer was extremely attentive to Whistler’s health and full of praise for the artist:

“Of course, I must stand by the illness regardless of earlier plans. So in the future my movements will depend entirely upon his condition. He is very weak and still brave as a lion. A most extraordinary man!!”
—Freer to Hecker, June 27, 1902

Despite his high praise of Whistler and attentiveness to his condition, Freer was reluctant to recognize how seriously ill Whistler was in the spring of 1903, just months before his death. Freer even talked of sitting for an unfinished portrait that Whistler had begun the year before, when he was in better health:

“Shall you be in Chelsea after June 15th? and if you are in the mood would you be willing to resume work on my Portrait?”
—Freer to Whistler, March 30, 1903

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

By the summer of 1903, Freer was visiting Whistler daily, making a daily trek from his hotel in Grosvenor Square to Whistler’s home in Chelsea. Freer took his ailing friend on carriage rides and sometimes journeyed with him across the river to Battersea Park. The Thames was a fitting setting for Whistler’s final excursions, as the river and its landmarks were ever-present in his life and in his art.

If Freer ever failed to visit, Whistler would call upon him to make sure he would be coming again soon. Whistler sent a number of telegraphs to Freer at the end of his life, each expressing his desire to see his friend daily. Their correspondence illustrates how strong and sweet their friendship had become, intensified, no doubt, by an awareness of mortality. Their letters and telegrams are full of mutual respect and appreciation: an ideal artist-patron relationship. It is clear that Whistler cherished and relied on these visits from Freer and that Freer was always happy to come and see him.

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four." Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four.” Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

On July 16, 1903, Freer and Whistler drove their carriage through St. James and Hyde parks. After the ride, Whistler seemed refreshed; he played dominoes with Ethel and Rosalind before dinner. The next day, Friday, July 17, Freer arrived to pick Whistler up for another ride when he learned that Whistler had collapsed from a fatal blood clot in the brain five minutes prior to his arrival.

The Funeral

After Whistler’s death, Freer worked closely with the artist’s family to make arrangements for the funeral. He even served as a pallbearer. The funeral procession began at Whistler’s house and progressed up the street to St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church, where the artist’s mother, Anna, had worshiped. Whistler was buried next to his wife, Beatrice, at Chiswick St. Nicholas, a churchyard about four miles away from Cheyne Walk.

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. "Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church"; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. “Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church”; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Hundreds of people gathered to memorialize the artist who had become as well-known for his antagonistic feelings toward the British art establishment as he was for his enigmatic portraits and depictions of the Thames. The hordes of people created a spectacle that surely would have entertained Whistler, who delighted in publicity. The following are some highlights from the funeral photographs, now part of the Pennell-Whistler Collection at the Library of Congress.

The hearse travels to Chiswick to lay Whistler to rest on July 22, 1903.

The funeral procession moves towards St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church.

Charles Lang Freer, James Guthrie, John Lavery, Edwin Abbey, Theodore Duret, and George Vanderbilt serve as pallbearers and carry Whistler’s casket down Cheyne Walk. Guthrie was an Irish painter, Lavery a Scottish one, and Abbey an American. Duret was a noted French critic. Vanderbilt, whose family had amassed a fortune in railroads and other business ventures, was American as well. Although he spent his entire professional life in London, Whistler had not a single English artist, critic, or collector in his funeral entourage.

People gather in Chiswick’s St. Nicholas churchyard, where Whistler is laid to rest beside his late wife, Trixie.





The day after Whistler died, Freer had concluded a letter to Frank Hecker by noting: “Need I say that in all things of perfect refinement of beauty the greatest masters are now all gone—at least all known masters.” Freer not only understood Whistler’s pursuit of beauty in his artwork and in his life, but truly believed that Whistler’s art had achieved this “perfect refinement of beauty.” Whistler was all-consumed by thoughts of his legacy in the later years of his life, and Freer’s assessment of him as the last known “greatest master” is one that Whistler surely would have embraced. Freer’s postscript to Whistler’s death was a fitting final tribute from patron to artist, and from one friend to another.

Stay tuned for part two of this exploration of Whistler’s neighborhood.


Daniel E. Sutherland’s biography Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake informed this post.

The Mystery of the Missing Frame

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

It was three hours into my internship at the Freer|Sackler, and I already had a mystery to solve: a Whistler frame. No, artist James McNeill Whistler hadn’t been framed for a crime—though that would’ve been an interesting topic to study. This mystery involves a frame around one of his paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Mystery

Whistler painted Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen in 1864. This was a time in his career when he was first incorporating Japanese elements into his paintings. He was also designing specially decorated frames for these works.

When museum founder Charles Lang Freer purchased The Golden Screen many years later, in 1904, it was surrounded by what Freer’s secretary described as “the old frame.” That frame was sacrificed for the protection of the painting during the shipping process. Freer had a new frame made for the painting: a relatively simple, reeded design that is still known as a “Whistler frame” because the artist adopted it for his work in the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1905, Freer acquired Whistler’s Portrait Sketch of a Lady. It was enclosed in a frame that clearly did not belong with the work: a so-called Oriental Cassetta frame, the type that Whistler had used in the mid-1860s for his Japanese costume paintings (more on that later).

In short, two Whistler paintings in the Freer collection ended up in frames that, as time went on, didn’t seem quite right. They were swapped in the 1980s, mostly because the Oriental Cassetta frame and The Golden Screen seemed to be an excellent—but perhaps not perfect—match. The opening of the frame, for instance, is not exactly the right size relative to the dimensions of that painting.

Linda Merrill, former curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, wondered if the frame currently on The Golden Screen had actually been original to another Whistler painting, Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl, now at the Tate. Freer|Sackler staff had long understood that the frame swap in the 1980s may not have resulted in a perfect fit for either The Golden Screen or Portrait Sketch of a Lady, but the involvement of The Little White Girl was a new development.

Like The Golden Screen, The Little White Girl has had several frames at various points in its history. The frame original to The Little White Girl survives only in a period photograph and shares visible stylistic similarities with the frame currently around The Golden Screen. Both were both created in 1864, and the frame of The Little White Girl was believed to have gone missing. But maybe it actually just found a new home around The Golden Screen. My task was to figure out if this was the case.

"The Golden Screen" with the mystery frame. "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a

“The Golden Screen” with the mystery frame. “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a


The Investigation

To start solving this mystery, it’s helpful to have some context for the frame in question. The Oriental Cassetta style includes Asian motifs, thus allowing the subject matter of the painting to extend onto the frame, the two acting as a complementary pair. In 1864, Whistler designed four such frames to accompany his Japanese paintings, as documented by frame historian Sarah Parkerson: the one currently on Purple and Rose: The Lang Leizen of the Six Marks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the one on the Freer’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain, the one original to The Little White Girl, and the one currently around The Golden Screen.

Whistler frequently reframed his work, especially when he adopted his signature gilded and reeded style of framing in the 1880s. By the 1890s, he began to standardize his framing practices, seeking unity and simplicity when his works were exhibited together. He sought to control everything about how his paintings were exhibited and placed great importance on his frames, especially when organizing a big retrospective in 1892. He often requested permission from collectors to reframe works from earlier in his career. This is what happened with The Little White Girl.

This information provided a promising start, but I needed to keep digging to determine whether The Little White Girl‘s original frame ended up around The Golden Screen. So, I focused on the visual evidence. The most convincing evidence that the paintings had two distinct frames are the subtle differences between the frames’ ornament. This evidence, however, is based on visual comparison, which is limited by the fact that the original frame for The Little White Girl is missing and the photograph that exists is dated, low-quality, and black and white.

“The Golden Screen” and “The Little White Girl” in their Oriental Cassetta frames.

Carved, round designs, or roundels, are present in all of Whistler’s Oriental Cassetta frames. However, there’s variation in how they appear. The surface decoration of The Golden Screen frame pictured above includes eight roundels, one on each side and one in every corner. The designs on the sides include ivy or paulownia leaves in Japanese mon designs; each corner features a different roundel with palm leaves.

In the frame around The Little White Girl in the black-and-white photo, there are only six roundels, one at each corner and on two of the sides. Additionally, the design of the roundels in this frame features small rosettes with fringe, distinct from the ivy or palm leaves. Even with a low-quality image of the frame, these differences from The Golden Screen frame are clear. These differences confirm that the frame original to The Little White Girl is not the one currently on The Golden Screen.

The red circles indicate the location of the roundels on each frame.

Future Investigative Work

Though I confirmed that the frame currently around The Golden Screen was not original to The Little White Girl, my research on this topic is not over. It’s still uncertain if the frame you see today around The Golden Screen is indeed the original, and I’d love to confirm what painting Whistler intended this frame to accompany. I never thought I’d be as interested in what’s around the artwork as in the artwork itself, but my time at the Freer|Sackler shifted my focus. Visit the Freer|Sackler during reopening weekend this October 14–15 to see Whistler’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain proudly sporting one of his four 1864 Oriental Cassetta frames, and see if your focus shifts to the frame, too.

Sarah Parkerson’s dissertation on Whistler’s framing practices, “Variations in Gold: The Stylistic Development of the Picture Frames Used by James McNeill Whistler,” is a resource that was of enormous help to my research and this blog post.

A Look Back at the 2017 Hong Kong Film Festival

Mad World

Twenty years ago this July, rule over the territory of Hong Kong was transferred from Great Britain to China. To mark the occasion, this year’s edition of the Freer|Sackler’s Made in Hong Kong Film Festival began and ended with films made twenty years apart. Though they are distinctly atypical of the island’s film industry, these films highlight through their uniqueness what Hong Kong’s cinema and culture was before the handover and what it has become since.

To begin at the end, the festival closed with a film that shares its title. The first independent film made after the 1997 handover, Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong was, in both style and substance, entirely different from the kinds of movies that defined Hong Kong cinema up to that point. No jaw-dropping martial arts feats by the likes of Jackie Chan or Jet Li. No cool gangsters in sharp suits showering each other with bullets in slo-mo fight scenes a la John Woo’s underworld epics. Instead, Fruit Chan’s film looks at the largely invisible underbelly of the city, where people live in cramped apartments and turn to petty crime simply to pay their bills.

Made in Hong Kong

In its edgy, gritty style and pessimistic plot, Made in Hong Kong (which we presented in a beautifully restored twentieth-anniversary version, created by the Udine Far East Film Festival under Chan’s supervision) embodied the anxiety many people felt about the handover at the time. Would China really honor its promise to allow business as usual to continue for the next fifty years? And what would happen after that?

That anxiety hasn’t gone away, even as the Hong Kong film industry has expanded to take on the mainland China market that the handover opened up. Today’s blockbuster Hong Kong movies are frequently hybrid affairs—no less glamorous than the pre-handover movies, but less distinctly Hong Kong. They are often made by a combination of Hong Kong and mainland talent, aimed at the tastes of Chinese audiences with an eye toward the strict censorship that mainland authorities enforce.

Made in Hong Kong

Much as Made in Hong Kong stood out against the status quo of its day, Mad World, the opening film of this year’s festival, stands out against today’s. The result of a new Hong Kong government initiative to support young filmmakers addressing important issues, Wong Chun’s film plays out far from the city’s New York-on-steroids skyline, telling the story of a poor truck driver trying to care for an adult son suffering from bipolar disorder. Taking on both economic inequality and the stigma associated with mental illness, Mad World is in tune with a number of activist movements that have grown up on the island recently.

Young filmmakers like Wong are part of an emboldened generation more likely to speak their mind than their predecessors. Their outspokenness—from the 2014 Occupy protests, which recently resulted in the imprisonment of three prominent activists, to two newly elected legislators who refused to pledge allegiance to the mainland while being sworn in—may have been on the mind of China’s President Xi Jinping on the handover’s twentieth anniversary. His speech commemorating the occasion warned Hong Kongers against crossing the “red line” of undermining Chinese autonomy.

Mad World

Visiting Hong Kong this spring for Filmart, its annual entertainment business trade show, was a stranger-than-usual experience. In the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center (where, coincidentally, the handover ceremony took place in 1997), upbeat sales reps from the big distribution companies cheerily hawked their latest films in eye-catching booths pulsing with music and film clips. Outside, conversations with local friends inevitably came around to the undercurrents of unrest and unease that seem to be occupying everyone’s minds.

One of Mad World’s themes is that the traditional dream of making it in Hong Kong—that working hard will lead to wealth, designer clothes, and a gorgeous high-rise apartment—is harder than ever to attain. In reality, even successful white-collar workers work punishing hours to barely afford a tiny, dingy flat a hellish commute away from their cubicle in the city’s glittering downtown. And for Hong Kong’s increasingly visible and vocal down-and-out, the situation is much worse. The decision to restore Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong twenty years after its debut couldn’t be more apt: today, it looks prescient.

An Insider’s look into the Silk Road Society

The Silk Road Society offers young professionals in the DC area a chance to experience Asian art and culture in engaging and creative contexts. Members receive benefits such as special access to Freer|Sackler exhibitions and evening events, plus discounts in Smithsonian shops and at local hotspots. In addition, members are invited to monthly events held not only in our galleries, but also at other area museums, embassies, art galleries, and artist studios. A year’s membership costs $150 and can be shared by two members, or a single member can use it to bring one guest to all non-ticketed events.

Interested in learning more about the Silk Road Society? Read the interview below with advisory board member Minh Dang and get a sense of what it means to be a member.

Image of Minh Dang at Christies New York, Asia Week 2017

Minh Dang works for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, DC, and is a lover of art, culture, the environment, and philanthropy. Along with the Silk Road Society’s advisory board, Minh serves on boards for children’s charities, Asian associations, and environmental foundations. Originally from Santa Cruz, California, Minh likes to surf, hike through redwood forests, and enjoy the arts.

How long have you been a member? And what led you to join the Silk Road Society?
I’ve been a member for three years. As the chair of the Department of Justice Asian Employee Association, I had arranged a docent-guided tour of the Freer|Sackler exhibition The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia for our members during the 2014 Lunar New Year. This was my first experience with the museums, and I was taken in by their tranquil space, extraordinary exhibitions, and wonderful staff. I soon thereafter joined the Silk Road Society.


What do you love most about the Silk Road Society?
I participate in many of the art and culture programs in Washington, and what I do very much love about the Silk Road Society is the sophistication, quality, and intimacy of its many programs throughout the year. The Silk Road Society arguably is one of Washington’s best-kept secrets.


What has been your favorite event so far and why?
My favorite Silk Road Society event so far would be the 2015 Birds of a Feather Gala. We had an extraordinary evening at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with a champagne reception and an exclusive preview of Peacock Room REMIX, followed by an after party at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, where we enjoyed drinks, dessert, and dancing. It was a breathtaking evening of art, music, and dance!


Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room; James McNeill Whistler, 1876–77; oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.61. Detail of north wall, installed with Kangxi blue-and-white porcelains. Photo: Neil Greentree

Do you have a favorite artwork at the Freer|Sackler?
I visit the Peacock Room often. I am drawn to the beauty, complexity, and rich and tumultuous history of the room, including the relationship between the patron (Frederick Leyland) and the artist (James McNeill Whistler).


What are you looking forward to?
I look very much forward to the reopening of the Freer|Sackler and our annual trip to Asia Week New York.


Silk Road Society members will have the opportunity to preview the Freer Gallery of Art before the public reopening at our annual fall reception on Friday, September 22. Join now and reserve your spot!

Kobayashi Kiyochika: A Journey through the Shadows

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Umaya Bridge, ca. 1880

Japanese woodblock prints produced between 1870 and 1930 reflect a period of immense change as Japan opened to the Western world and urban life transformed in response to technological advances. In investigating this period during my summer internship at the Freer|Sackler, one woodblock print artist of the era, Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), drew my interest for his contemplative attention to nightscapes, which differed from the work of both his predecessors and contemporaries. He was the subject of the 2014 Freer|Sackler exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night—a fitting title. Kiyochika’s intricate use of gradated shadow, often punctuated with sources of illumination, in addition to his diversity in subject matter, from moonlit views to Japanese naval battles, makes him a fascinating artist to study.

After consulting with Jim Ulak, the Freer|Sackler’s senior curator of Japanese art, I decided to focus my summer curatorial research project around Kiyochika and his place within printmaking toward the end of the nineteenth century, a period when the old city of Edo became the rapidly modernizing city of Tokyo. My search began with the Open F|S collections and The Museum System (TMS) database, which allowed me to page through some four thousand images online.

Open F|S search results for Kobayashi Kiyochika

Kiyochika came from a family of bureaucrats living under the Tokugawa shogunate, the final feudal Japanese military government that had remained in power since the early seventeenth century. His development as a woodblock print artist coincided with political upheaval of the era. Following the opening of Japan to Western influence by US Commodore Matthew Perry and the eventual overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kiyochika retreated with the shogun from Edo to Shizuoka and began a self-imposed exile.

While Kiyochika established himself in Shizuoka, the capital city of Edo entered a period of dramatic technological change. In addition to the expansion of telegraph wires, the development of a railway system and wheeled vehicles such as the horse-drawn carriage rapidly altered the landscape that Kiyochika had left behind.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, The Great Naval Victory of Chemulpo, 1904

When the artist returned to Tokyo in 1874 after his six-year exile, the city’s once-dark buildings and streets were increasingly illuminated by gas-fueled lights. With the realm of the nightscape now opened to further exploration and experimentation with light and shadow, Kiyochika began in 1876 to produce a series of ninety-three woodblock prints known as Famous Places of Tokyo.

While Kiyochika’s series title draws inspiration from his predecessor Andō Hiroshige’s widely popular series 100 Famous Views of Edo, both artists present markedly different impressions of the landscape of Tokyo. And though Hiroshige’s color palette falls more in line with that of Kiyochika’s contemporaries, who often used the bright light of the day to glorify technological advances, Kiyochika’s attention to night and shadow sought to invert the “invasive” attributes of the new Tokyo. He instead increasingly explored the interplay of technological advances and a growing population in an ever-changing arena of solitude.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, 1880

Devoting twenty-five of his ninety-three prints to nightscapes alone, Kiyochika used the recently transformed Japanese landscape against itself, examining the shadows rather than bright city lights that his contemporaries continued to depict.

Andō Hiroshige, Hatsune Riding Ground at Bakurocho, 1857

To further research Kiyochika’s attention to light and shadow, I consulted the Freer|Sackler’s extensive TMS database and research gathered for a past Freer|Sackler exhibition titled Dream Worlds: Japanese Prints and Paintings from the Robert O. Muller Collection. From these sources, I found that Kiyochika often employed a number of print techniques to visually structure his nightscapes and experiment with sources of light.

As displayed in the print above, Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, Kiyochika was able to create subtle gradations in the night sky by using the bokashi technique. Rather than applying only one ink value to the entire woodblock surface, Kiyochika instead created a variety of shades by adding ink in a gradient to a dampened block. The variety of dark hues created from this technique further attest to Kiyochika’s intricate exploration of nightscapes and the atmospheric impact of variations in light and shadow.

While using the bokashi technique, Kiyochika showed particular attentiveness to rendering the human form in relation to the rapidly transforming environment. As seen within Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer, Kiyochika outlined and silhouetted figures against the background as they silently illuminate their respective paths. The placement of figures near the lighthouse adjacent to the Yasukuni Shrine heightens the solemn undercurrent of the print as a depiction of a memorial to Japanese soldiers who had died in service of the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata, ca. 1881

Created using Western techniques, the lighthouse, a physical extension of the Yasukuni Shrine, also subtly commemorates the technological and social changes that initially caused Kiyochika’s own exile and eventual attraction to the woodblock print medium. Cast within an evocatively altered environment and caught between reconciling the past with the present, human figures within the print are unified in form yet isolated in position, quietly populating the scene in which they are placed. In this way, human figures appear as poignant actors as they too are quickly subsumed by the enveloping night sky of the city. This intricate reimagination of familiar Japanese landmarks in uniquely somber contexts distinguishes the work of Kiyochika as a captivating perspective of life in the shadows.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Koromogawa river at Tennōji-shita, ca. 1880

My exploration of Kiyochika’s use of light and shadow began simply with an initial search on Open F|S. For art history researchers who are interested in the Freer|Sackler collection but are unsure of where to start, Open F|S provides a wealth of readily accessible information. I hope that my process of discovering Kiyochika serves as a template for learning by exploring, even from the shadows.

Indonesia Intrepid

Emma at Ratu Boko (photo by Jinah Kim)

Emma Natalya Stein, Freer|Sackler curatorial fellow for Southeast Asian art, shares scenes from her recent journey to Indonesia.

August 4, 2017

It’s 6 pm Friday evening, and the mosques compete for airtime on my balcony at Chakra Homestay. I am in the city of Solo (Surakarta), one of Java’s historical courtly centers, where I arrived this afternoon. For the past week I have been in Central Java’s other epicenter of art and culture, Yogyakarta, for an exciting workshop on Southeast Asian art history, co-organized by SOAS London and Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. The program brought together scholars from Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States to explore topics relating to the interconnected Hindu-Buddhist world. A particular focus was esoteric religious practice (tantra) in Indonesia and its appearance in art.

Candi Siwa at Prambanan, relief carving with female practitioner performing an esoteric dance

Candi Siwa at Prambanan, relief carving with female practitioner performing an esoteric dance

After several days of seminars, we set out for a field trip to temples—always the greatest part, especially for an art-loving group! Each of the sites we visited dates to the Central Javanese period (circa eighth–tenth century).

First on our list was the majestic Buddhist monument of Borobudur, famous for its five terraces brilliantly carved with narrative reliefs and its hundreds of seated Buddhas.

The terraced monument of Borobudur

The terraced monument of Borobudur

Borobudur, relief showing the enlightenment of the Buddha

Borobudur, relief showing the enlightenment of the Buddha

On day two we ascended the Dieng Plateau, a four-hour drive north of Yogyakarta, where Hindu temples that closely—but not entirely—resemble Indian temples overlook the surrounding lowlands, beside an emerald green lake.

Candi Arjuna, Dieng Plateau, temple in a South Indian architectural mode

Candi Arjuna, Dieng Plateau, temple in a South Indian architectural mode

Dieng Plateau, sulfuric lake with Gunung (volcano) Sindoro in the distance

Dieng Plateau, sulfuric lake with Gunung (volcano) Sindoro in the distance

The third day was devoted to the palatial Ratu Boko monastery and the vast complex of temples at Prambanan.

The temple-complex of Loro Jonggarang at Prambanan

The temple-complex of Loro Jonggarang at Prambanan

We then returned to Yogyakarta for a final day of intensive seminars. After the workshop, I’ll head off for a week of additional temple visits farther east in central Java and in Bali. It begins tomorrow at 6 am with a visit to a cluster of esoteric temples on the tea-covered slopes of Gunung (volcano) Lawu.

Candi Cetho on Gunung Lawu

Candi Cetho on Gunung Lawu


August 13, 2017

Sacred sites in Indonesia are intimately connected with the natural environment. They are carved into rocks, situated on the banks of rushing rivers, and carefully positioned with respect to the archipelago’s sometimes-violent volcanoes. In Bali, where Hindu tradition continues to be vibrant, this connection is especially evident.

Gunung Kawi

Gunung Kawi

Gunung Batur from Pura Pancer Jagat in Trunyan village

Gunung Batur from Pura Pancer Jagat in Trunyan village

Although the island’s sacred landscape is densely packed with sites both old and new, the greatest concentration is situated centrally, within a fertile tract of land between two rivers. Basing myself in Ubud, I was able to make day trips to many places of art historical and archaeological interest.

Map of central Bali, A.J. Bernet Kempers, Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese Archaeology & Guide to the Monuments (Berkeley: Periplus, 1991), 116.

Map of central Bali, A.J. Bernet Kempers, Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese Archaeology & Guide to the Monuments (Berkeley: Periplus, 1991), 116.

I began my days in the damp cool of early morning and traveled on the back of a local driver’s motorbike. In addition to the driver’s familiarity with the roads, I had as my primary resource A.J. Bernet Kempers’ volume Monumental Bali. It remains the essential guide to the area, despite the fact that the data was collected in the 1980s. Fortunately, since its publication, some of the sites labeled “difficult access” have become more easily accessible, and further excavation work has revealed additional important destinations.

Candi Kalebutan

Candi Kalebutan

Each place I visited presented a unique picture of the interconnectedness of Bali’s sacred art and its natural landscape. However, what I found most compelling was when I could see the connection between sites. One way to do so was by walking from one to another—but such opportunities are increasingly rare. As sacred places are converted into tourist attractions, the links between them become obscured or, worse, obliterated. The creation of a monument carves out a discrete space and isolates it from the surrounding landscape. This can entail the destruction of related sites through the paving of parking lots and stairways and the building of ticket offices, restrooms, and other visitor facilities.

Cave façade and bathing place at Goa Gajah

Cave façade and bathing place at Goa Gajah

Goa Gajah cave interior

Goa Gajah cave interior

I did remember from a brief visit to Bali ten years ago that it had been possible to walk through the jungle between two of central Bali’s better-known attractions—the cave temple of Goa Gajah and the monumental relief carving at Yeh Pulu. Most guidebooks don’t mention the link, but some inquiries at Goa Gajah soon led me to the trailhead. Walking back behind the main archaeological area, I could see some fragments of a large relief that had been carved into the rock face and hear the sounds of the jungle beginning to take over.

Fragment of relief carving at entrance to jungle path behind Goa Gajah

Fragment of relief carving at entrance to jungle path behind Goa Gajah

The narrow footpath is lined on both sides by purple flowers and a dense tangle of dripping vines. Sounds of the rushing river rise from the gorge below. At several places, the path branches off and plunges down to the water. Here, the jungle’s cacophony emerges.

Farther along the jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

Farther along the jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

At one place, a recently constructed bamboo bridge leads to a series of caves. Thick tree roots growing through the rocks suggest a relatively ancient date of excavation.

Caves along jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

Caves along jungle path from Goa Gajah to Yeh Pulu

After about a half a mile, the path halts at a small temple with a bathing place below.

Shrine and bathing place near Yeh Pulu

It then wends out of the jungle and into paddy fields to emerge at Yeh Pulu, where a monumental relief carving depicts stories associated with the Hindu deity Krishna amid scenes of pastoral life in Bali.

Yeh Pulu

Yeh Pulu

Another place where I was clearly able to see the connection between sites was when—to my surprise—a steep ascent through terraced rice fields led me from Tirta Empul, one of Bali’s holiest bathing places, up to Pura Pegulingan, the next temple I’d hoped to visit that day! Pura Pegulingan presents an excellent picture of Bali’s unique fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism. Remains of sculptures related to the deity Shiva can be found throughout the temple courtyard, which is centered on a towering stupa, a Buddhist reliquary mound.

Stupa at Pura Pegulingan

Stupa at Pura Pegulingan

Off the beaten pathways was where I most often discovered walkable connections among sites. I found that following the rivers revealed a network of related places, often composed of a larger, perhaps primary place with a proliferation of smaller shrines, caves, and bathing places around it. While the larger monuments suggest elite patronage, the constellation of minor sites likely functioned as hermitages and places of worship for ascetics and local communities—much, in fact, as some still do today.

Ceremonial offerings in front of sculptures of deities at Candi Puser Ing Jagat in Pejeng village

Ceremonial offerings in front of sculptures of deities at Candi Puser Ing Jagat in Pejeng village

Indonesia is a fantastic place to visit. Whether or not you’ve had the chance to go, you’ll be able to experience examples of its artwork firsthand in Washington, DC. Come see the new Southeast Asia galleries when the Freer|Sackler reopens this October!


All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

The Mystery of the Rosewater Sprinkler

Rosewater sprinkler, Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1990.1

Little did I know that my first intern assignment at the Freer|Sackler this summer would be worthy of a detective novel. Researching an Indian rosewater sprinkler took me down a few surprising paths and underscored the importance of careful visual analysis.

Perfumes have long been popular in India, and sprinklers containing perfumed water were an important part of courtly ritual. A silver rosewater sprinkler in the Freer Gallery of Art’s collection was originally attributed to an imperial Mughal workshop, circa 1700. But Dr. Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art, believed that the flower motifs displayed on the sprinkler were not consistent with those that adorn Mughal works. She had a hunch that the sprinkler might be from Lucknow—a city in northern India—and produced for the Awadhi court. So, she put me on the case.

A detail of the five-petaled pendant flower that adorns the front and back of the Freer rosewater sprinkler.

To begin, I looked at pictures of colonial era Lucknow to see if floral decoration on buildings throughout the city matched the sprinkler. I soon realized that I was approaching the project incorrectly. Looking at photos of Lucknow from the nineteenth century was not enough. Without any understanding of the history of the city and its rulers, I had no idea how to situate the floral motifs from the sprinkler within Lucknow’s chronology or gauge their importance.

I started to research the Awadhi court so I could construct a timeline of important events. This new direction of inquiry proved far more fruitful. In 1722, the Mughal rulers of India appointed a new governor for the state of Awadh (located in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh). The new governor moved the state’s capital from Lucknow to Faizabad. Over the next few decades, as the power of the Mughal Empire waned, the rulers of Awadh affirmed their own sovereignty and assumed complete control of the state. In1775 a young ambitious ruler, Asaf al-Daula, came to power and returned the Awadh capital to Lucknow. This move launched a flourishing period of art and culture in the region, which lasted until al-Daula’s death in 1797.

A detail of the flowers that adorn the main arch of the Turkish Gate, built in 1784. Note the stylistic similarities and differences between this motif and the one on the rosewater sprinkler.

This information was vital to my investigation. Because al-Daula sponsored high levels of artistic and architectural production, I began to look at the building projects he commissioned in Lucknow. I discovered that the five-petaled pendant flower at the center of the Freer|Sackler’s sprinkler is stylistically similar to flowers that adorn exteriors and interiors of religious and secular buildings throughout Lucknow.

The motif, which occurs in both five- and seven-petaled variations, is most commonly found at the apex of archways above doorways and windows. Prominent examples of the motif can be found at the Bara Imambara complex, which includes the Turkish Gate and the Asfi Mosque. The construction of these buildings began in 1784. While none of the flowers represented in these architectural settings is identical to the one on the sprinkler, the motif seems to have provided opportunity for artistic innovation and variation; for example, each flower motif that appears above the arches on the Turkish Gate varies slightly from its neighbor.

Extending my investigation beyond the flowers, I discovered that the sprinkler’s neck distinctly resembles certain columns found on Lucknow buildings from the late eighteenth century. Like the sprinkler’s spout, these columns are fluted and ribbed. And acanthus leaves typically embellish the columns’ capital and base in the same manner as on the sprinkler.

Columns of the Bara Imambara complex in Lucknow, India, built in 1784.

During my research, I drew heavily on the scholarship of Stephen Markel, senior research curator for South and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In his exhibition catalogue India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, Markel observes that al-Daula’s patronage catalyzed the development of the “mature Lucknow style,” which he describes as predominantly ornamented with stylized flowers bursting into bloom and flowering branches with perching birds. By comparing the luxury objects featured in Markel’s catalogue with the Freer rosewater sprinkler, I realized that the similarities were too striking to be coincidence—the sprinkler undoubtedly belongs to the mature Lucknow style. This information led me to conclude that the sprinkler was produced in Lucknow, probably between 1775 and 1800. Dr. Diamond was correct!

Columns of the Bara Imambara complex in Lucknow, India, built in 1784.

This project was a highly valuable experience as it helped me sharpen and improve my visual analysis skills. Careful examination of hundreds of images of Lucknow’s architecture and luxury goods enabled me to recognize subtle stylistic differences that I may have overlooked previously. I also gained insight into the type of in-depth research required for attributing, dating, and subsequently labeling an object in a collection—skills I will carry forward in future art historical work.

Come check out the rosewater sprinkler on October 14, when the Freer|Sackler reopens to the public. You can find it in Freer gallery 1, where you’ll see my research embedded into the tombstone for the object!