Friday Fave: Elephants in the Museum

Lidded ritual ewer (huo) in the form of an elephant with masks and dragons; Middle Yangzi Valley, China, Shang dynasty, Late Anyang period, ca. first half 11th century BCE; bronze; Purchase, F1936.6a–b
Lidded ritual ewer (huo) in the form of an elephant with masks and dragons; Middle Yangzi Valley, China, Shang dynasty, Late Anyang period, ca. first half 11th century BCE; bronze; Purchase, F1936.6a–b

A search for “elephant” in Open F|S yields 135 results. This trumps the less engaging turtle or rabbit (65 and 83, respectively) but really can’t compare to the stalwart horse or fantastic dragon (528 and 652). I love searching the collection this way—the objects returned come from wildly different periods and cultures, and are executed in nearly all the media represented in the museums’ collections.

The “elephant” category includes a certain number of objects that are made of ivory (made centuries ago and acquired by the museums when it was legal to do so) or that have the word “elephant” in their title. These, however, aren’t actually depictions of elephants. The elephants in the F|S collection are nearly equally divided between two-dimensional works on silk or paper—from China, Japan, India, and Iran—and three-dimensional pieces, mostly in bronze or stone from China, with a few from Southeast Asia. They date from 1200 BCE to the middle of the twentieth century.

Equally striking are the differences in the elephants: some are mischievous, some are complacent—aware of their magnificence as they parade across the page—while some look disgruntled and even sad. Scanning nine pages of results, we see the full panoply of this animal that so has intrigued artists, travelers, royalty, and others over the centuries.

The elephant pictured here is one of my favorites. It is a ewer (or vessel) intended for ritual use, cast from bronze with elaborate surface ornamentation. Made in China, probably around 1100 BCE, it is of modest size. When this vessel was made more than 3,000 years ago, elephants were probably much more prevalent in China than they are today. The little elephant perched on the vessel’s lid and the use of the animal’s trunk as a spout give the object a whimsical quality that belies its ritual significance. It is also an incredibly rare vessel, the only surviving example with its original lid. We know that the lid and base belong together because of similarities in the decoration.

Acquired by the Freer Galley in 1936, the elephant ewer has been the subject of study over the years, but lately it has been receiving a new kind of attention as a recent addition to the Smithsonian’s 3D imaging project. This innovative program creates 3D models of objects from across the entire Smithsonian, allowing us to discover new insights with cutting-edge technology. The research potential is extraordinary, but it’s also just fun to explore the object in this new way, turning it around on the screen, looking at it from new angles, and zooming in to see the elephant in ways we couldn’t do in the gallery.

A special thank-you to Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at Freer|Sackler, for advising on this post.

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