• Exhibition Notes
  • Reviewed by Jane Whitehead
  • April 25, 2019
Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America

Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America
McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
February 11–June 2, 2019
Website: McMullen Museum of Art

A monumental Meiji-era bronze sculpted eagle with a nine-foot wingspan broods over the Daley Family Gallery at the McMullen Museum of Art. Now restored to its original appearance, for decades the eagle hid in plain sight atop a granite column on the Boston College campus, beloved as a college mascot but battered by the New England climate, its craftsmanship disguised by weather damage and heavy gilding.

For exhibition cocurators Diana Larsen (assistant director of the McMullen) and Victoria Weston (associate professor of art at the University of Massachusetts Boston), the rediscovery of the Boston College eagle was the starting point for a wide-ranging exploration of the context of its making and the circumstances of its acquisition in Japan by philanthropists and art collectors Larz and Isabel Anderson, the original owners.

With nearly one hundred objects drawn from over a dozen collections, mostly from New England, Larsen and Weston have created a rich, materially diverse setting for reconsidering the Boston College eagle. Juxtaposing artifacts including bronze, silver, and ivory sculptures of birds of prey; elaborately painted folding screens; scroll paintings; intricately carved netsuke; and lacquerware, ceramics, and textiles for the export market, Eaglemania explores several interlocking themes. These include Meiji-era bronze sculpture production, the depiction of birds of prey in Japanese art, and the enthusiasm with which wealthy late nineteenth-century Americans—and Boston Brahmins in particular—embraced Japanese art and culture.

A short video in the gallery recapitulates the rediscovery and restoration of the Boston College eagle. By 1993, the “golden eagle” that for decades had served as a campus landmark and college mascot was deemed beyond repair. A replica was commissioned from reproduction sculpture specialists Skylight Studios in Woburn, Massachusetts, cast, and installed atop its column. The original sculpture remained in storage at Skylight, until in 2015 a faculty member at Showa Boston, a Japanese language and culture institute, saw it there and tipped off Boston College that the abandoned work might repay investigation.

Dismantled, damaged, and dust-covered as the eagle was, Larsen immediately recognized the quality of its craftsmanship when she first saw it in pieces at Skylight Studios, and arranged for its removal to a Boston College storage facility and its examination by experts in Japanese art, including Weston. They confirmed her initial assessment that the piece was from the Japanese Meiji period (1868–1912), and Larsen commissioned Boston-area restorers Rika Smith McNally & Associates to undertake its conservation.

The video compresses two years of painstaking repair, cleaning, gilding removal, repatination, lacquering, and waxing into minutes, culminating in the reassembly of the sculpture on a custom-fabricated armature designed and made by Skylight Studios. With its original greenish-gray patina restored and its surface detail revealed, especially the finely chased modeling of the bird’s head and the subtle tones of bronze in the eyeballs, the sculpture bears comparison with works by master metalworker Suzuki Chokichi (1848–1919), Larsen and Weston suggest.

Suzuki Chokichi specialized in depicting birds of prey, observed minutely from life. He set up his own workshop at age seventeen, went on to become director of the Japanese government-sponsored manufacturing and trading company, Kiryu Kosho Kaisha, and successfully exhibited at many international exhibitions and worlds’ fairs, from the 1870s through 1904. He played a leading role in “promoting a global craze for Japanese bronze artifacts,” writes Joe Earle, former director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York, in his catalogue essay, “Suzuki Chokichi: Master of Metal Raptors.” Whether he was involved in any way with the Boston College eagle is presently unknown, as Earle acknowledges, but the piece would likely never have been made without his “pioneering efforts in nurturing a Western taste for Japanese raptor sculpture in metal.”

Regardless of its authorship, the Boston College eagle is a rare example of monumental Japanese bronze casting. Two other sculptures strikingly similar in form and scale are known, installed in open-air sites in Kansas City and London, and for comparison, video projections of these works flank their Boston cousin in the central, culminating space of the exhibition. None of the three is signed, though the bottom part of the Boston eagle’s craggy bronze base—where a signature might have been found—has been removed. In the same gallery, Suzuki Chokichi’s Eagle with Outstretched Wings, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, provides a unique opportunity to compare the Boston College discovery with a work securely attributed to the master metalworker.

Three introductory galleries anchored by splendid pairs of painted folding screens explore the cultural and thematic roots of raptor images in the Edo period (1615–1868). Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, eagles were rare in Japanese art. Those that were depicted drew on Chinese models, as seen in two six-paneled screens painted by Soga Nichokuan (active ca. 1620–60), showing single figures of a hawk eagle in a pine tree and a golden eagle perched on a rock.

Hawks and hawking were much more common than eagles in Japanese experience and art, Weston notes. Owning and training hawks was the prerogative of the Samurai elite, for whom elaborate albums combining closely observed images of birds with instruction in the art of hawking were produced. Four leaves from an Album of Hawks and Calligraphy by Kano Tsunenobu (1636–1713) are fine representatives of the genre. Also clearly designed for an elite market is a pair of folding screens from around 1780, depicting two contrasting scenes featuring different varieties of birds, rendered in saturated mineral pigments against gold foil backgrounds. One shows chickens by a stream, with a large cage filled with songbirds; the other, a caged habitat for hawks and fledglings.

Only after Japan’s opening to western trade in 1853 did Japanese artists embrace eagles as subjects guaranteed to sell to European and American buyers whose countries adopted the bird as a national symbol, emulating ancient Rome. Typical examples on show are a bronze Eagle on a Gnarled Wood Stump (ca. 1880), from the workshop of Genryusai Seiya, and a woodblock print by Ohara Koson, Eagle on Rocky Shore, from around 1910.

Tracing the provenance of the Boston College eagle led Larsen and Weston deep into the world of Larz and Isabel Anderson of Washington, DC, and Brookline, Massachusetts. Fresh from Harvard College, Larz Anderson (1866–1937) first visited Japan in 1888, and declared it the “Wonderland of the World.” He subsequently made three further trips, including a brief stint as American ambassador in 1912. In 1897 he married Isabel Weld Perkins (1876–1949), whose estate, Weld, in Brookline, became their country home. There, the eagle was installed in successive Japanese-style gardens, until Isabel bequeathed it on her death to her private secretary, Augustus Anderson—no relation—who gave it to Boston College in 1954.

The Andersons’ primary residence in Washington, DC, now the Society of the Cincinnati, houses the Andersons’ archive and a museum of the couple’s possessions. At the end of a long day’s research in the archive, Weston and Larsen found a handwritten packing list proving that the eagle was among thirty-one cases of Japanese objects shipped home from Yokohama by the couple on their honeymoon in 1897. Until that point, Weston had thought it likely that they acquired the eagle at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis, which featured an elaborate Japanese exhibit, including gardens and a replica village.

Eaglemania evokes the Andersons’ milieu with a gallery installation recalling a grand fin-de-siècle reception room that showcases several of their Japanese acquisitions. These include an eighteenth-century porcelain Imari punch bowl and stand, a Meiji-period gilt-bronze temple lantern, and a seventeenth-century gilded wood figure of the seated Buddha. Larz is represented by a 1916 bronze bust by Bruce Wilder Saville, showing him in full diplomatic uniform, on loan from the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline. Isabel appears in a full-length portrait by Cecilia Beaux, from 1900–1901, showing her as a society beauty in a diaphanous, low-cut white dress with gold trim. Like most of the Andersons’ possessions on display, the portrait comes from the Society of the Cincinnati, Washington, DC.

The portrait contains several Japanese references, including a gilded folding fireplace screen and, prominent on a table in the foreground, a crystal ball on an ivory dragon stand. The original of the crystal ball, or its twin, stands in a case next to the portrait, the sole survivor of a pair purchased by the Andersons for three thousand yen on their honeymoon. As Weston notes in her catalogue essay, crystal ball gazing was a fad in the later nineteenth century, as part of a fascination with the occult. A small selection of the Andersons’ published and unpublished writings on Japan, with some of Larz’s humorous sketches of their travels and Isabel’s 1914 travel guide, The Spell of Japan, suggests that their engagement with the country and its culture went beyond tourism and polite diplomatic contacts.

For western Europeans and Americans who lacked the means to travel abroad, the international exhibitions, or worlds’ fairs, that took place regularly in major cities in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century offered a glimpse of faraway places and their peoples and cultures, and a chance to acquire a range of goods designed for the export market. Larsen and Weston have assembled representative examples, several from the McMullen’s own collection, including a gilded, glazed earthenware “Satsuma” tea set from around 1870–90, with dragon and Buddhist saint (rakan) images, and a monumental cast and hammered silver punch bowl from 1890, also writhing with dragon motifs, made by Arthur and Bond, an English-owned manufacturer and dealer based in Yokohama.

At the conclusion of the exhibition, the Boston College eagle will be installed permanently on the second floor of the McMullen Museum’s glass atrium, its wings silhouetted against the sky. It will never again be subject to the rigors of the New England climate, now that the research prompted by its rediscovery has so conclusively staked its claim to a place in the history of Japanese art and American collecting.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 134–page catalogue edited by Victoria Weston: Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America (McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2019).

British-born writer Jane Whitehead is based in Boston. An Oxford graduate, she was associate director of Health Promotion Services in Cambridge, England, before moving to the US in 1992. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, ArchitectureBoston, The Horn Book Magazine, and many local newspapers and alumni publications.

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