Art of Japan Collection and History of Cultural Exchange

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has a long relationship with Japan that dates back to the 19th century. In 1890, the MFA became the first museum in America to establish a Japanese collection and appoint a curator specializing in Japanese art. The MFA’s Asian Conservation Studio is one of only five such studios in the United States and is the oldest outside of Asia. Its initial mission was to preserve Japanese paintings. Today, the Museum’s Asian art collection, in particular Japanese art, is celebrated as the finest outside of Japan.

Japanese Collection

The extraordinary strength of the MFA’s Japanese collection is attributed to the foresight and enterprise of a small group of pioneering connoisseurs of Japanese art, including Edward Sylvester Morse, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, William Sturgis Bigelow and Okakura Kakuzō (also known as Okakura Tenshin). Bigelow became the department’s greatest benefactor, donating the majority of the Museum’s 4,000 Japanese paintings and more than 30,000 ukiyo-e prints—one of the largest collections of its type in the world. Morse, Fenollosa and Okakura all served as MFA curators, and Bigelow was a MFA Trustee. While residing in Japan during the late 19th century, they assembled examples of the highest artistic achievements in art, both religious and secular, ranging from the eighth century to modern times. Noteworthy among these holdings are the eighth-century Hokkedō konpon mandara, one of the earliest extant landscape paintings in East Asia; the 1189 image of Miroku, the earliest dated work by the master sculptor Kaikei; the mid-13th-century Heiji monogatari emaki, which chronicles the burning of the Sanjō Palace in vivid detail; and the Four Sages of Mount Shang, a pair of whimsical screens by the 18th-century eccentric painter Soga Shōhaku. In addition, the MFA holds important examples of lacquer, ceramics, swords and sword fittings and a large group of Nōrobes and masks.

In recent years, the Japanese collection has benefited from major gifts of 19th- and 20th-century works. Of note are those donated to the Museum by Leonard A. Lauder and Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf. These include 20,000 postcards from the Lauder collection, as well as 650 Meiji-era woodblock prints and more than 1,000 photographs of Japanese life in the 19th and early 20th centuries given by the Sharfs. A recent gift of more than 90 contemporary Japanese ceramics and baskets from Stanley and Mary Ann Snider spans the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

From 1991 to 2005, a collaborative study took place at the MFA, sponsored by the Kajima Foundation for the Arts in Japan. Members from the Museum’s curatorial and conservation staffs along with 28 scholars from Japan analyzed more than 4,000 paintings, sculptures, textiles, masks and lacquer works in the MFA’s Japanese collection. This was the first review of these works since the early 20th century, when Okakura Kakuzō first catalogued the collection.

Art of Japan Gallery

To highlight many notable works from the Museum’s Japanese collection, the MFA reinstalled its Art of Japan gallery in January 2013. It features more than 130 objects dating from the fifth century through the present day, showcasing a range of paintings, textiles and decorative arts. Included are many works never before displayed at the MFA and a number of recent acquisitions. Art of the Rulers, the first of five sections, explores both the arms and armor that were symbols of the samurai might, including three swords and tea ceremony ceramics, screens and Nōdrama masks and robes—which were important indicators of their cultural legitimacy. Art of the Town examines the lively and somewhat irreverent artworks that were produced in Japan’s urban centers from the 17th through the 19th centuries, such as the banner of Shōki, the Demon Queller, by Katsushika Hokusai. There are also works of “Mingei” (the Folk Art Aesthetic) on view, as well as a section devoted to new acquisitions. A fifth Art of Contemporary Japan section features works illustrating the cutting-edge designs and craftsmanship of today’s Japan’s ceramic, bamboo and glass artists.

The gallery on the second floor of the Museum is adjacent to the Buddhist Temple Room. Designed in 1909, it evokes the dignified simplicity of Japanese temples. Japanese and American craftsmen consulted plans of the various halls at the eighth-century monastic complex of Hōryū-ji, one of the oldest extant in Japan, and collaborated on the adaptation of some of its architectural elements for the Temple Room and nearby galleries. Massive wooden pillars with Japanese-style brackets now frame the walls in the Temple Room, where the décor and subdued lighting encourage contemplative viewing of the seven Japanese statues housed there. The focal point is the monumental Dainichi, Buddha of Infinite Illumination (1149), the supreme deity of the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon. His hand is in the “wisdom-fist” gesture symbolizing divine knowledge. To his left is another Dainichi Buddha from the 12th century, and to his right is Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light (12th century). Also on view in the Temple Room are two of Four Guardian Kings (9th century), Fudō the Immovable One (12th century) and Bishamonten, Guardian of the North (11th–12th century). All are made of wood, either cypress or camphor, and some are painted or have gilt accents.

Sharing the Japanese Collection

Upon the conclusion of the Kajima Foundation’s reassessment of the MFA’s collection in 2005, the Museum began to actively share its treasures with the Japanese public through traveling exhibitions. Many of the works have visited the MFA’s sister museum—The Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts (N/BMFA)—which opened in 1999 and represents the first such relationship between an American and Japanese museum. Numerous MFA exhibitions have traveled to Japan, including Allure of Edo: Ukiyo-e Painting from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which was enthusiastically received when it toured three museums in Japan in 2006: the N/BMFA, Edo-Tokyo Museum and Kobe City Museum. In 2008, Printed Treasures: Highlights from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was seen at the N/BMFA, Niigata City Museum, Fukuoka Art Museum and the Edo-Tokyo Museum. In honor of the 10th anniversary of the MFA’s partnership with the N/BMFA in 2009, the two museums organized Gauguin, the centerpiece of which was the artist’s masterwork, D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?) (1897–98). The MFA’s monumental painting traveled for the first time to Asia, and was featured in the exhibition with approximately 40 works by Gauguin from the MFA’s collection and from museums in Japan.

Additionally, in March 2012, the MFA’s traveling exhibition, Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston debuted at the Tokyo National Museum, where its presentation resulted in the highest attendance figures for any MFA exhibition in Asia and was one of the world’s most popular exhibitions in 2012. Subsequent venues included N/BMFA, Kyushu National Museum and the Osaka City Museum of fine Arts. The exhibition featured more than 90 renowned works from the MFA’s collection—many of which had not been seen in Japan in a century—and prompted the conservation of the masterpiece Dragon and Clouds (1763) by Soga Shōhaku, which was restored to suggest its original format as eight sliding doors (fusuma) for the first time since it entered the MFA’s collection in 1911. The work will be on view at the MFA in March 2014.

The Museum has made its acclaimed Japanese collection more accessible to the public through exhibition, publication and the web—more than 32,000 Japanese prints have been digitized and put on the MFA’s website, . Visitors to the website also can enjoy online tours of Japanese paintings, Buddhist art, arms and armor, prints, photography, postcards and 20th-century art at /collections/asia.