“Rich and Wonderful Glazes”: East Asian Pottery from the Freer Collection in New York City
In the spring of 1914, the sumptuous galleries of the Knoedler & Co. dealership on Fifth Avenue in New York City hosted an unprecedented exhibition titled Chinese, Corean [sic] and Japanese Potteries. Organized by the Japan Society in partnership with the Asiatic Institute, the exhibition ran its twenty-day course from the 2nd to the 21st of March, 1914—closing 107 years ago today. It was the first time that at least part of the American public could enjoy some of the best private collections of East Asian ceramics in the United States all in one place and accompanied by a lavish catalogue.
Freer Gallery of Art founder Charles Lang Freer was not only one of the lending collectors; he also took on curatorial and entrepreneurial roles.
Freer served on the “pottery committee” with seven other collectors; covered half of the expenses for British Museum curator Robert Lockhart Hobson to travel to the United States to catalogue the Chinese and Korean ceramics; and commissioned a photographer, Lawrence X. Champeau, to document the show. The photographs that you can enjoy on this page are drawn from the Freer-commissioned album.
Freer’s dedication to this exhibition was partially motivated by the fact that almost a quarter of all exhibited ceramics were his: nineteen Japanese ceramics, twenty-eight Korean ceramics, and thirty-six Chinese ceramics—totaling eighty-three objects out of 372.
But one could argue that his interest in the show’s success and afterlife also sprang from both a desire to build his legacy and an awareness of the growing importance of the Freer collection, which at the time had already been bequeathed to the Smithsonian.
The Knoedler & Co. exhibition revealed a major change in collectors’ tastes, moving away from blue-and-white and polychrome, intricately decorated porcelain to largely monochrome and richly glazed stoneware. Freer’s collection of East Asian pottery exemplified taste in the latter and served to signal this shift in preference to the American art world and to the art-loving public of the United States.
From its preparatory stages to its conclusion, the exhibition tells the story of an international network of collectors and curators who shared a passion for East Asian art, particularly ceramics. For example, Rose Sickler Williams contributed to the catalogue with an essay on Chinese ceramics from Beijing (at the time romanized as Peking). The archaeologist and ceramics collector Edward Sylvester Morse, whose career straddled Japan and Massachusetts, was invited to “inspect” the Japanese objects intended for display.
Morse was an advisor to many of the lending collectors, including the Detroit-based Freer. By the time the exhibition opened, preparations involved collectors and admirers of East Asian ceramics from London, Boston, New York, Detroit, Beijing, and Tokyo.
Illustrated in this post are three cases from the exhibition that featured Korean, Chinese, and Japanese ceramics, respectively. (To learn more about the Freer objects that traveled to New York for this exhibition, click on the ceramics’ accession numbers in the captions.)
In the Knoedler galleries, each case contained objects drawn from multiple private collections, grouped by region and artistic tradition. This model was significant: it de-emphasized the ownership and taste of the individual collector and prioritized a regional and cultural understanding of the ceramics.
The exhibition catalogue provides a cross section of what, at the time, one could learn about East Asian ceramics. For example, many of the Japanese ceramics in the exhibition, including Freer’s, spoke to the tea ceremony culture of Edo-period Japan—an art-historical aspect that the catalogue did capture, although the emphasis was more on visual analysis than on historical context. As Morse wrote in the “Prefatory Note,” the exhibition’s selection of Japanese objects illustrated the “rich and wonderful glazes of Japanese pottery.” That remains as true today as it did in 1914.