Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered

Freer and Utamaro

A Detroit industrialist, Charles Lang Freer met the American artist James McNeill Whistler in London in 1890. The artist influenced Freer to begin collecting Asian art.

Whistler had been using Asian imagery—kimono-clad Western models surrounded by Japanese prints or Chinese porcelains—in his paintings since the 1860s. His goal was not to introduce Western viewers to exotic lands but rather to escape the constraints of Victorian-era painting. By depicting newly available Japanese and Chinese objects, Whistler presented new colors, patterns, and compositions. Freer, however, saw in Whistler’s art “points of contact” between East and West. From the 1890s until his death in 1919, Freer acquired both Whistler’s finest pieces and numerous Asian artworks.

When Freer first encountered Asian art, he was particularly intrigued by Japanese paintings, stoneware ceramics, and tea-ceremony items. While other enthusiasts were focusing on popular collectibles such as netsuke, dolls, woodblock prints, and enameled porcelain, Freer’s first Asian art purchase in 1887 was a painted Japanese fan. Between 1894 and 1911, Freer made four extended visits to Japan, and, by the time of his death in 1919, he had collected over two thousand works of Japanese art.

In his letters and diaries, Freer expressed disappointment with a modernizing Japan. For him, the gritty port of Yokohama, for example, differed little from Detroit, his hometown. Like many nostalgic Westerners of his day, Freer preferred structured evocations of an “unchanging” past. Along with Japan’s well-tended gardens, these evocations included renderings of idealized women from the former “floating world.” Freer collected nearly one hundred Japanese paintings featuring such “beauties.”

Whistler likely introduced Freer to the dealer Siegfried Bing, who considered the collector a premier client. Born to a German family long connected to Japan through business interests, the dealer Siegfried Bing both helped form and profited from the art nouveau movement. Bing had avidly promoted Japanese works in Paris since the 1860s. In 1895, he opened Maison de l’Art Nouveau, his Paris gallery. There, notable artists of the day—such as Monet, Van Gogh, and Whistler—and designers such as Vever and Tiffany followed Bing’s lead in appreciating Japanese art.

One of Bing’s principal competitors and collaborators was the dealer Hayashi Tadamasa. Brought to Paris as an interpreter at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, Hayashi became a major purveyor of Japanese art—particularly woodblock prints. Hayashi’s seal was soon established as a connoisseur’s affirmation of quality.

In the early 1900s, Hayashi decided to sell his private collection and return to Japan. He authorized Bing to manage the auctions. In the February 1903 sale, Freer acquired Utamaro’s Moon at Shinagawa. Freer later wrote to Bing that he was very pleased with the purchase, though he commented on the painting’s unwieldy size: “. . . the Utamaro I am glad to have, notwithstanding the fact that it is a very difficult piece to handle.”



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