A brief history

three men in suits standing behind a table in large hall
The Miura Brothers working in Freer’s exhibition hall, Detroit, 1917

The Freer Gallery of Art, the gift of Charles Lang Freer, became the Smithsonian Institution’s first fine arts museum with the approval of Congress in 1906. During the years leading to the Gallery’s opening in 1923, Freer began preparing his still growing collection for donation. Freer’s correspondence shows that he took a particular interest in caring for East Asian paintings at this time. He advised collectors and museums about their acquisitions and helped arrange for repair and remounting of their paintings through his network of Asian art dealers in the United States and Japan.

In 1916, Freer began to purchase valuable antique textiles, tools and materials to have his Chinese and Japanese paintings remounted to suit his taste. He arranged for two brothers, Miura Hisajiro and Eisuke, to come from Japan for one year to remount much of his collection. Initially using the large exhibition gallery in Freer’s mansion as their workspace, they restored and remounted over 300 paintings. Hatashita, another mounter introduced to Freer by the art dealer Yamanaka, followed in 1918. He also spent a year helping to prepare the initial donation of 610 East Asian paintings to the Smithsonian. Freer died in 1919 before his Gallery was complete.

The Freer Gallery of Art’s first director, John Ellerton Lodge, came from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston where he had been the curator of Chinese art. He arranged for Kinoshita Kokichi, who was the mounter at Boston, to spend half of each year at each museum over a period of almost ten years. In 1931, a full-time position was created for Kinoshita, who stayed with the Freer until 1950.

In the post-World War II era, the Freer Gallery reconfirmed its commitment to the care of its East Asian paintings collection. Three federal positions were created by an act of Congress in 1952 specifically for non-national mounters of East Asian painting. The first was Sugiura Takashi, who worked at the Freer from 1953 until 1980.

Since the 1960s, the East Asian painting Conservation Studio (EAPCS) has maintained a staff of two to three Japanese mounters working together. At present, the Japanese-trained conservators are Ueda Jiro and Andrew Hare, who supervises the studio.

 

sepia tone archives photo of conservators
Japanese painting conservator, Nishiumi Ryo, working with Cornell Evans and John Marshall in the cabinet shop to produce boxes and roller clamps for storing East Asian paintings, 1970’s

In 1991, the first Chinese-trained conservator, Gu Xiang-mei, joined the conservation staff; an important step toward balancing the FreerISackler’s support of both East Asian painting conservation traditions. While maintaining the museums’ collections of Chinese paintings, Gu has worked diligently to advance the field of Chinese painting conservation, developed innovative treatment techniques and trained a number of conservators from China, Taiwan, and the West. Grace Jan, who joined the EAPCS in 2009, is the Yao Wenqing Chinese Painting Conservator. While caring for the Chinese painting collections, she also facilitates educational workshops and lectures.

The East Asian Painting Conservation Studio has two endowed programs, the Hirayama Program for Japanese Painting Conservation and the Chinese Painting Conservation Fellowship Program. These complimentary programs support fellowships, workshops, lectures and other educational activities for the care and conservation of East Asian paintings. They are vital to the FreerISacklers’ efforts to maintain its collections and advance the rich traditions of Chinese and Japanese mounting and painting conservation in the West. The strength of these programs in many ways is due to the FreerISacklers’ holdings of more than 4,500 East Asian paintings, one of the greatest collections of Chinese and Japanese paintings outside of Asia, the long-established roles of curatorial and scientific research, and the educational mandate of the Smithsonian for ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge’.


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