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Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan

In 1896 Freer purchased his first two Japanese folding screens from Matsuki Bunkyō, a Japanese art dealer based in Boston. Later that same year, Thomas Dewing began to paint a pair of bifold screens, now known as The Four Sylvan Sounds, that combined an eclectic array of artistic sources within a decidedly Japanese format. The screens are even “read” from right to left, as is typically done with Japanese screens. During the two years that Dewing worked on Sylvan Sounds, Freer acquired sixteen Japanese screens, twelve of which (including four pairs) are now in the museum’s collection. Many came from the New York gallery of Yamanaka and Company, where Dewing often bought works on Freer’s behalf.

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 James McNeill Whistler. This early arrangement underscored Freer’s belief in cross-cultural aesthetic connections between East and West.

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detail from a folding screen Flowers and Brook.

Detail, Flowers and a Brook. Japan, Edo period, 1615–1868. Pair of folding screens; color over gold on paper. Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1897.27–28 .