Charles Lang Freer and the “Discovery” of Sōtatsu

“After much dickering of a most exasperating nature, I bought a pair of six-fold screens by Sotatsu.… [The dealer’s] original price was ten thousand dollars but I cut his prices exactly in half.”
—Charles Lang Freer writing about Waves of Matsushima, October 18, 1906

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), the founder of the Freer Gallery of Art, was without peer as a collector of Japanese art. His route to this artistic tradition emerged from his friendship with American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), who inspired Freer to make five visits to Japan. Among his many acquisitions, none rival the paintings by Tawaraya Sōtatsu (active circa 1600–40). Freer perhaps first became aware of the artist through an interest in ceramics by Sōtatsu’s creative partner, Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637). That led to a fairly rapid series of purchases, culminating in two pairs of screens—Dragons and Clouds, purchased in 1905, and Waves at Matsushima, purchased in 1906. Both now rank as undisputed masterworks.

Freer purchased the Waves at Matsushima screens from Kobayashi Bunshichi (1861–1923), a Japanese dealer who was particularly attuned to the collector’s developing taste for Sōtatsu. In 1906, he persuaded Freer that he had found a masterpiece, which led to the delivery of the Matsushima screens to the American’s residence in Detroit that October. True to form as a hard bargainer, Freer halved the price requested by the dealer.

Kanzan and JittokuBodhidharma Seated in Meditation

Freer and Japan’s Modern Art

When Freer first visited Japan in 1895, he went as a tourist and not as a connoisseur of Asian art. But by his next visit in 1907, he was attracting the attention of Japanese dealers and collectors. Freer built his reputation as a collector of premodern works, but he also visited Japan between 1895 and 1913, when artists were defining their own identities. Some asserted a continuity with the past, others broke with it, but all were interested in creating a viable market for their work.

Two advisors encouraged Freer to support contemporary artists. Scholar Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908) had urged the struggling painters of the once-powerful Kanō school to adapt their styles to appeal to international collectors. He recommended their works to Freer, who acquired a select group, including several by Kanō Hōgai (1828–1888) and Hashimoto Gahō (1835–1908). These artists depicted traditional subjects with modeling of figures, shading, perspective, and other Western techniques.

Hara Tomitaro (1868–1939) was the scion of a wealthy silk-producing family and, like Freer, a collector of premodern Chinese and Japanese art. He too helped emerging Japanese painters search for a modern visual vocabulary with international appeal, using his own collection to expose them to works by Sōtatsu and his followers. In 1915, Hara’s son Zenichirō asked whether Freer was interested in the young artists embraced by his father. Freer politely demurred. Gahō  and Hōgai would represent the extent of his ventures into twentieth-century Japanese painting.  Of the many choices available to Freer on the modern stage, he opted for the most conservative.