Chinese Art at the Seattle Art Museum

Chinese art is a founding collection of the Seattle Art Museum. The museum’s original building was built in 1933 as a gift to the city by Richard E. Fuller (1897–1976), together with his mother Margaret E. MacTavish Fuller (1860–1953). A geologist by training, Richard E. Fuller was particularly interested in jade, porcelain, and snuff bottles (Left). He served as director for four decades, and the decorative arts continue to illustrate the collection’s strengths. Collector Emma Baillargeon Stimson (Mrs. Thomas D. Stimson, 1887–1963) also helped the museum establish a strong ceramics collection, and she served as acting director and the first female leader of the museum during WWII. Other individuals instrumental in expanding SAM’s holdings in the traditional arts of China include Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008), Henry Trubner (1920–1999), and Director Emerita Mimi Gardner Gates (b. 1942).

The Chinese collection today comprises about four thousand works. There are several notable Buddhist sculptures in this historic repository, including a monumental fourteenth-century, wood-carved Qingyou zunzhe, the dragon-tamer luohan. The painting collection includes important Ming and Qing dynasty works from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, such as A Branch of the Cold Season by Yang Hui (15th century); Landscape of Dreams by Shao Mi (ca. 1594–1642), dated 1638; and Landscape, Human Figures, and Flowers, a joint album by Luo Ping (1733–1799) and Xiang Jun (2nd half of 18th century). Also included is Wen Zhengming’s (1470–1559) calligraphic masterwork in running script, Poem for the Painting “Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains.” A recent addition to the collection is an eighth-century sutra manuscript in exemplary regular script (Right). At present, this fragment is the only work directly traceable to Dunhuang’s “Library Cave” (Mogao Cave 17) upon its discovery in 1900 before the arrival of Western explorers such as Marc Aurel Stein.

The Seattle Art Museum now has three locations: the original Art Deco–style architectural landmark designed by Carl Gould and Charles Bebb in the Olmsted Brothers’ Volunteer Park, renamed the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 1994; the downtown Seattle Art Museum, opened in 1991 and expanded in 2007; and the Olympic Sculpture Park, which opened in 2007 on Seattle’s waterfront. The extensive project to modernize and expand the Asian Art Museum, completed in 2020, spurred a new curatorial direction. Instead of linear sequences defined by culture or chronology, viewers encounter a series of interrelated galleries where each gallery explores a distinct theme. Under each theme, juxtapositions of art from across Asia and from multiple points in history offer an experience of the continent’s visual cultures that is accessible yet grounded in expertise. The displays also suggest the porosity of the Asian continent, the transfers of knowledge that inspired innovation and bound together communities across ethnic and national borders in networks of trade, technology, and belief. One of only a few museums in the United States dedicated to the arts of Asia, the Seattle Asian Art Museum aims to show its visitors that such connections continue to shape the world today.