As one of the largest and finest comprehensive collections of Japanese painting and calligraphy in private hands in the West, the Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection includes more than 600 works ranging in date from the eighth century to the present day. It is particularly strong in paintings and calligraphy that have links to East Asian literary traditions across the centuries, with a focus on calligraphy, inscribed paintings, and works inspired by Japanese and Chinese poetry.
The Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection arguably represents the most significant addition to the Freer Gallery of Art’s Japanese painting and calligraphy collections since the museum’s founding more than a century ago. Beginning in 2018 and over the course of five years, a total of 260 works of Japanese painting and calligraphy are being gifted to our museum. The bulk of the gift consists of important works of early modern literati painting and calligraphy from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, as well as modern paintings and calligraphy from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that draw from earlier Japanese traditions, making them perfect additions to the Freer Gallery’s original holdings. Works of the literati tradition are particularly noteworthy. Such works were made by Japanese artists on the basis of Chinese traditions, a major practice in Japan where Chinese motifs were considered an intrinsic part of the country’s centuries-old cultural fabric. Responding to trends of collecting at the time, works of the literati tradition by artists such as Yosa Buson (1716–1784), Ike Taiga (1723–1776), and Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924) were largely ignored by late nineteenth century collectors in the United States, Europe, and Japan. The Cowles Collection offers an exceptional opportunity to augment the Freer Gallery’s collections in this crucial area of Japanese art.