For the first time in a major U.S. museum in more than 50 years, an exhibition portrays the significance of pan-Asian cultural influence in modern Japanese paintings through the example of one of modern Japan’s most renowned artists. Focusing on Japanese painter Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924) and his teacher, nun and political activist Otagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875), the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, presents “Meeting Tessai: Modern Japanese Art from the Cowles Collection” on view from March 28 through Aug. 2.

The exhibition celebrates the more than 20 years of collecting by Mary and Cheney Cowles, the donors of a major collection of early modern and modern Japanese painting and calligraphy to the museum. This exhibition highlights the biggest portion of artwork by a single artist in the Cowles Collection. Their extensive collection of over 550 works will be distributed across the Freer and Sackler, the Portland Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Meeting Tessai” explores the hidden side of Japan’s modernity by highlighting often-overlooked aspects of cross-pollination between Japan and China in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The exhibition invites visitors to discover a modern Japanese painter who had an outsized importance in his own time but has since been largely forgotten. With a display of more than 60 paintings and a selection of ceramics, visitors will also learn about Tessai’s working relationship with his mentor, Rengetsu. Though praised for his avant-garde style and often compared to European postimpressionists such as Paul Cézanne, Tessai’s approach to painting was quite traditional. He developed his style from studying ancient Japanese paintings and Chinese paintings of the Ming and Qing dynasties (17th and early 20th centuries), which came to Japan in large numbers in the early 20th century. Through Rengetsu’s mentorship, Tessai saw Chinese art and culture as a key part of Japan’s shared East Asian cultural fabric.

“Tessai was incredibly important in his own time and into the post-World War II years. Paying tribute to Tessai’s international outlook in painting, an exhibition in the 1950s in the U.S. hailed his work as a harbinger of peace and reconciliation after the destruction of WWII,” said Frank Feltens, the Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art at the Freer and Sackler. “We are thrilled to hold the first exhibition of this astounding artist in more than 50 years.”

Tessai’s innovative style soon found him at the center of the Japanese art world, benefitting from modern means of distribution and a network of high-society patrons. For example, he exhibited his work at high-end department stores such as Takashimaya, and he cultivated patrons from the upper tiers of Japan’s business world. Tessai’s paintings were so esteemed that he was one of the first Japanese artists to have his work shown in the U.S.—in an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian—following WWII. Decades earlier, museum founder Charles Lang Freer met with the artist three times in June 1907 while the American collector was in Kyoto. Both traditional and modern, Tessai devoted his life to understanding Japan and China as one intrinsically connected cultural sphere.

The exhibition opens with Tessai’s early drawings and studies of Japanese paintings. The focus then shifts to Tessai’s relationship with his mentor Rengetsu, a nun famous for her calligraphy and for political work supporting the resurrection of imperial power in the early 19th century. Through their collaboration, Rengetsu helped to establish and solidify Tessai’s reputation. The exhibition concludes with an exploration of how Tessai incorporated Chinese art into Japan’s modern cultural identity.

A series of public programs will accompany “Meeting Tessai,” including those planned for the 2020 National Cherry Blossom Festival. Curator talks, documentary films and performances will occur from late March through early April. On March 28, the museum will celebrate the opening of the exhibition and a cherry blossom season with a festival of activities available for all ages, including kite flying, art making, tours and musical performances. For details on programs and events, visit the museum website.

Support for the exhibition is provided by Mitsubishi Corp. and the Anne van Biema Endowment Fund.

About the Freer and Sackler’s Strength in Japanese Art

The Freer and Sacker’s Japan Program is the first and largest interdisciplinary program outside of Japan focused on Japanese art, film and culture. It is devoted to researching, exhibiting, publishing and promoting the arts and culture of Japan from pre-history to the present, nationally and internationally. The museums’ collection of more than 12,000 objects from Japan span four millennia and include paintings, ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, lacquer and modern and contemporary photography and graphic arts. The program is overseen by an interdepartmental team of Japanese specialists, including curators, conservators and a curator of films who presents a robust series of Japanese films.

About the Freer and Sackler

The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, are located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Committed to preserving, exhibiting and interpreting exemplary works of art, the Freer and Sackler house exceptional collections of Asian art, with more than 42,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to today. Renowned and iconic objects originate from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East and the Islamic world. The Freer Gallery also holds a significant group of American works of art largely dating to the late 19th century. It boasts the world’s largest collection of diverse works by James McNeill Whistler, including the famed Peacock Room.

The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are dedicated to increasing understanding of the arts of Asia through a broad portfolio of exhibitions, publications, conservation, research and education. The museum is free and open to the public 364 days a year (closed Dec. 25).