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Merchants of Asianness: Japanese Art Dealers in the United States in the Early Twentieth Century

  • CONSTANCE J. S. CHEN

Abstract

This article explores the role of Japanese merchants within American art and collecting circles and analyzes the ways in which the construction of “Asianness” and, in particular, “Japaneseness” became intertwined with the classification of Asian art. In order to reconstitute the market for high art and to create their own positionalities as legitimate cultural intermediaries, Asian art dealers such as Bunkio Matsuki (1867–1940) and Sadajiro Yamanaka (1866–1936) used their connections to Japan as cultural capital. Ultimately, their experiences illuminate the complexities of the reconceptualization of ethnic–racial identities through the lens of aesthetic discourses.

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1 1891 advertisement for the Almy, Bigelow, and Washburn Department Store, the Almy, Bigelow and Washburn Collection, James Duncan Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum (hereafter PL).

2 William Sturgis Bigelow frequently served as an intermediary between Isabella Stewart Gardner and Bunkio Matsuki. Whenever he could not afford a certain item that the dealer sent his way, Bigelow would pass it on to her. In March of 1902, for instance, Bigelow wrote to Gardner, asking her if she would like to purchase nine pieces of bronze artifacts at a discounted price of $45,000. He informed her that famed European dealer Samuel Bing (1838–1905) charged $70,000 for a single bronze object from the same era. Letter of 22 March 1902, Isabella S. Gardner Museum Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (hereafter AAA). And again, in April 1902, he wrote to Gardner regarding a “pair of small red drape curtains embroidered with colored flowers the like of which I never saw. Price $450. They are too handsome for my humble home. Is there any chance of your wanting them or shall I send them back?” Letter of 9 April 1902, Isabella S. Gardner Museum Papers, AAA.

3 For a discussion on the ways in which terminologies like “Orient” and “Oriental” have become problematized, see Edward Said's influential work, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978). See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1983). For specific discussions on how Orientalism has impacted American perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans see, for instance, Mari Yoshihara, Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); and John K. W. Tchen, New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776–1882 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

4 See, for instance, Russell Lynes, The Tastemakers (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954); Aline Saarinen, The Proud Possessors: The Lives, Times and Tastes of Some Adventurous American Art Collectors (New York: Random House, 1958); Gabriel Weisberg, Art Nouveau Bing: Paris Style 1900 (Washington, DC and New York: Smithsonian Institution and Abrams, 1986); and John Rewald, Cézanne and America: Dealers, Collectors, Artists, and Critics, 1891–1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). Even though the Salem, MA journal, Essex Institute Historical Collections, devoted a special issue to Bunkio Matsuki in April 1993, very little else has been written about him and other Asian and Asian American art dealers.

5 From an 1891 advertisement that announced the “formal opening of our Japanese Bazaar” at the Almy Department Store, the Almy, Bigelow and Washburn Collection, PL.

6 Examples of Bunkio Matsuki's catalogues include Descriptive Catalogue of Important Japanese Fine Arts: Collection Including Japanese Pottery, Porcelain, Bronzes, Brocade, Ivory, Screens, etc. Selected by Bunkio Matsuki of Kobe, Japan and Boston (1898); Beautiful Silk Fabrics: Catalogue of an Extraordinary Collection of Antique and Modern Silks, Brocade and Other Fabrics (1899); An Exhibition and Sale by Auction of a Wonderful Collection of Silk Screens and Fabrics and Ancient Wood Carvings from Buddhist Temples (1901); and Catalogue of Ancient Chinese Tapestries, Porcelains and Pottery, Wood Carvings, Armor, Helmets, Blue and White Porcelains, Stone Garden Ornaments and Old Japanese Prints (1907).

7 Isabella Stewart Gardner was one of Yamanaka's most loyal patrons. See bills of sale from 7 May 1902, 2 Nov. 1903, 23 April 1904, and 14 May 1915. All of these documents are a part of the Isabella S. Gardner Museum Papers, AAA.

8 See Yamanaka and Company's Catalogue of Antique and Modern Japanese and Chinese Paintings, Color Prints, and Screens (1905); Catalogue of Rare Japanese Prints: The Private Collections of Captain F. Brinkley, R.A. and Professor Josiah Conder (1900); and Illustrated Catalogue of the Chinese Art Treasures and Antiquities from the Private Collection of Mr. Edward R. Warren of Boston (1918).

9 See Hugh Honour, Chinoiseries: The Vision of Cathay (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1961); Carl Crossman, The China Trade: Export Paintings, Furniture, Silver & Other Objects (Princeton: The Pyne Press, 1972); and Brandimarte, Cynthia A., “Japanese Novelty Stores,Winterthur Portfolio, 26, 1 (Spring 1991), 125.

10 See, for instance, Peter Booth Wiley, Yankees in the Land of the Gods: Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan (New York: Viking, 1990); and Rhoda Blumberg, Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, c.1985).

11 See Masao Miyoshi, As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, c.1979); Taylor Parks, The First Japanese Diplomatic Mission to the United States, 1860 (Washington, DC: Office of Public Services, Bureau of Public Affairs, 1960); and Alfred Tamarin, Japan and the United States: Early Encounters, 1791–1860 (New York: Macmillan, 1970).

12 Quoted from Fukuzawa Yukichi, The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, revised translation by Eiichi Kiyooka (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 103.

13 From the 30 June 1860 story on “Our Parting Guests” in the New York Times.

14 See, for instance, James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) on the ways in which aesthetic definitions can both shape and reflect racial discourses. See also Preziosi, Donald, “The Question of Art History,Critical Inquiry, 18 (Winter 1992), 363–86; and Vernon Hyde Minor, Art History's History (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994). For discussions that delve specifically into the classification of Asian art, see Craig Clunas, Art in China (London: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Conn, Steven, “Where is the East? Asian Objects in American Museums, from Nathan Dunn to Charles Freer,” Winterthur Portfolio, 35, 23 (Summer–Autumn 2000), 157–73.

15 Yamanaka and Company, Exhibition of Japanese Prints: Illustrated Catalogue (1926). This “exhibition” was in actuality the precursor to a sale that took place in London.

16 See, for instance, Henry Adams, “John La Farge's Discovery of Japanese Art: A New Perspective on the Origins of Japonisme,” Art Bulletin, 67, 3 (Sept. 1985), 449–85; Laurance P. Roberts, “The Orient and Western Art,” in Arthur E. Christy, ed., The Asian Legacy and American Life (New York: Greenwood Press, 1978), 70–83; and Linda Merrill, The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography (Washington, DC: The Freer Gallery of Art, 1998).

17 Yamanaka and Company, Art of the Far East Catalogue (1929).

18 Bunkio Matsuki, Arms and Armor of Old Japan (1905).

20 For a discussion on how white Americans reacted to the encroachment of industrialization and urbanization, see T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

21 See, for instance, Yamanaka and Company, Catalogue of Japanese Prints (1926). This catalogue was not only filled with prints that depicted rural landscapes but also included many images of Japanese women in various stages of repose.

22 Bunkio Matsuki, Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Chinese and Japanese Paintings, Screens, Prints, Chinese Porcelains, Wood Carvings and Gold Lacquers from the Collection of the Japanese Connoisseur Bunkio Matsuki of Boston, Mass. Collected in Japan during the Last Fifteen Years (1910).

23 Yamanaka and Company, Exhibition of Japanese Prints: Illustrated Catalogue (1926).

24 Yamanaka and Company, Japanese Swords (1913).

25 See Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Rare Objects in Wood, Pewter and Brass (1903); and Yamanaka and Company, Catalogue of Ukiyoye Paintings, Prints, Rare Screens, Illustrated Books, and Kakemonos Belonging to the Japanese Connoisseur Bunshichi Kobayashi (1902). The desire to collect rare and unique objects has been discussed by Russell Belk, Collecting in a Consumer Society (London: Routledge, 1995); Susan Pearce, Museums, Objects, and Collections (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992); and John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, eds., The Cultures of Collecting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

26 See, for instance, Robert Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

27 See Yamanaka and Company, Catalogue of an Exhibition of Ancient Japanese Brocades, Embroideries, and Fabrics (1936) and idem, Catalogue of Ukiyoye Paintings (1902). See also Bunkio Matsuki's publications: Catalogue of Japanese Artist's Materials (1899); Catalogue of Japanese Color Prints (1920); Rare and Interesting Objects Illustrating the Arts and Crafts of Ancient China and Japan Collected by Bunkio Matsuki (1910); Remarkable Wood Carvings and Silk Embroidery at Copley Hall (1902); and Catalogue of Antique Chinese Porcelains and Pottery (1908).

28 Bunkio Matsuki, Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Chinese and Japanese Paintings, Screens, Prints, Chinese Porcelains, Wood Carvings and Gold Lacquers from the Collection of the Japanese Connoisseur Bunkio Matsuki of Boston, Mass. Collected in Japan during the Last Fifteen Years (1910).

29 Bunkio Matsuki, Descriptive Catalogue of an Important Collection of Japanese and Chinese Pottery, Porcelain, Bronzes, Brocades, Prints, Embroideries, Kakemono, Screens, Ivories and Gold Lacquers Selected by Mr. Bunkio Matsuki of Kobe, Japan and Boston (1898). Discussing some “ancient Chinese and Japanese Pewters” in one particular collection, Matsuki claimed that they were “probably the first examples of this interesting metal ever offered for sale in this country” – referring to the United States. From Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Rare Objects in Wood, Pewter and Brass Illustrating the Art of Old Japan (1903).

30 Yamanaka and Company, Art of the Far East (1929).

31 As a result of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, high-quality Japanese objects like antique swords had become available. See, for instance, Bunkio Matsuki, Arms and Armor of Old Japan (1905).

32 From the story on “Real Japanese Goods,” Salem Evening News, 10 July 1890. The newspaper was covering the opening of Matsuki's Japanese Division at the Almy Department Store.

33 Yamanaka explained that the dearth of worthy Ukiyo-e paintings was the result of the fact that “the demand for immaculate prints has far outrun the possibilities of supply, for the resources of Japan have for long been almost exhausted to meet the demands of European and American collectors, and the disastrous Earthquake and subsequent fires at Tokyo in 1923, destroyed alike the small remaining stocks of the dealers, the few important collections which had been made in that country, and the last opportunity for any chance discovery of hidden treasures, while in Europe and America, the constant locking up of prints from important collections in National and other Museums, reduced the opportunities for securing copies which might be available in public sales, while making the prices almost prohibitive.” From Yamanaka and Company, Exhibition of Japanese Prints: Illustrated Catalogue (1926).

34 Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Japanese Color Prints (1920).

35 Yamanaka and Company, Catalogue of Ukiyoye Paintings (1902).

36 In the Collection of Chinese and Other Far Eastern Art catalogue (1943), the purveyors of Yamanaka and Company derided the shoddy workmanship of “Chinese Export Ware”: “English and American sea captains trading with Canton in the eighteenth century placed orders for Chinese wares, but they must be ready at a certain date, when the captain made a return voyage. This was contrary to Chinese instinct and habit and the ware so turned out was too inferior in quality for use in China. In fact, it was made and decorated on a mass production basis solely for foreign markets.”

37 In the article on “Real Japanese Goods,” a reporter for the Salem Evening News wrote that “Mr. Matsuki … undertakes to show the true Japanese work” instead of substandard and undesirable export items. From the newspaper's 10 July 1890 edition.

38 1891 Almy Department Store advertisement, the Almy, Bigelow and Washburn Collection, PL.

39 From an 1891 advertisement for the Japanese Division of the Almy Department Store, the Almy, Bigelow and Washburn Collection, PL.

40 From an undated Bunkio Matsuki letter to Edward Sylvester Morse, Edward S. Morse Papers, PL.

41 Yamanaka and Company, Art Treasures from the Imperial Palace in Pekin [sic] (1917).

42 Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Japanese Color Prints (1920). The art dealer wrote that “knowledge of Japanese prints has enormously increased during the past five years; new facts have been brought to light, fallacies exposed and traditions interpreted. Accurate work has been accomplished in dating and classifying, both by native Japanese and western [sic] collectors.”

43 Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Rare Objects in Wood, Pewter and Brass Illustrating the Art of Old Japan (1903).

44 Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Japanese Artist's Materials (1899). Matsuki warned potential buyers that “the superiority of my goods calls forth many worthless imitations, but you are cautioned to accept none without the ‘rabbit’ trade mark.”

45 Yamanaka and Company, Catalogue of Room Decorations and Artistic Furniture (1905).

46 Matsuki, ever dramatically, recounted how an “old Samurai family in Tokio [sic]” was willing to relinquish its collection of rare prints. From the Catalogue of Japanese Color Prints (1920).

47 “Real Japanese Goods,” Salem Evening News, 10 July 1890.

48 Quoted from “The Bunkio Matsuki Memoir,” translated by Hina Hirayama, Essex Institute Historical Collection, 129, 2 (April 1993), 182. The memoir was originally published in five installments in the Japanese journal Konjaku.

49 The American media derided the so-called “downfall” of the Chinese. See, for instance, Dunnell, Mark B., “Our Rights in China,Atlantic Monthly, 86 (Oct, 1900), 271–77; and Angell, James B., “The Crisis in China,Atlantic Monthly, 86 (Oct. 1900), 433–37. See also Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

50 See, for instance, Peter Duus, The Japanese Discovery of America: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997); Robert Rosenstone, Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters with Meiji Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988); and George Sansom, The Western World and Japan: A Study in the Interaction of European and Asiatic Cultures (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951).

51 On the growing fascination with industrializing Japan, see Edward Sylvester Morse, Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings (New York: Dover Publications, 1866); and Percival Lowell, The Soul of the Far East (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1888). In addition, Lafcadio Hearn wrote a series of articles for the Atlantic Monthly in the 1890s. See also Carl Dawson, Lafcadio Hearn and the Vision of Japan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); and David Strauss, “The ‘Far East’ in the American Mind, 1883–1894: Percival Lowell's Decisive Impact,” Journal of American–East Asian Relations, 2, 3 (Fall 1993), 217–241.

52 See the Salem Evening News, 6 Sept. 1893, 29 Sept. 1893, and 15 June 1894.

53 From the New York Sun's 11 Nov. 1917 story. The newspaper went on to describe the building's interior in great detail, congratulating Yamanaka on bringing Japan to New York.

54 New York Sun, 11 Nov. 1917.

55 Matsuki never tired of calling attention to the fact that Japan was his “native country.” See, for instance, the introduction to the Descriptive Catalogue of Important Japanese Fine Arts (1898). His catalogues also often listed him as “Bunkio Matsuki of Kobe, Japan.” Kobe was where the Matsuki Export Company was located.

56 Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Rare Objects in Wood, Pewter and Brass Illustrating the Art of Old Japan (1903).

57 Bunkio Matsuki, Arms and Armor of Old Japan (1905).

58 Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Rare Objects in Wood, Pewter and Brass Illustrating the Art of Old Japan (1903).

59 Bunkio Matsuki, Exhibition and Sale by Auction of a Wonderful Collection of Silk Screens and Fabrics and Ancient Wood Carvings from Buddhist Temples (1901).

60 See Bunkio Matsuki's Catalogue of Rare Objects in Brass, Leather and Wood (1903) and Catalogue of Rare Objects in Wood, Pewter and Brass Illustrating the Art of Old Japan (1903). The titles are telling in and of themselves.

61 From an 1891 Almy Department Store advertisement, the Almy, Bigelow and Washburn Collection, PL. In the Catalogue of Antique Chinese Porcelains and Pottery (1908), the cover page proclaimed that the items at the auction were gathered by Matsuki on a “recent visit to his country.” See also the dealer's Catalogue of Arms and Armor of Old Japan (1906).

62 “The collection here exhibited has been made by me personally and by my special agents for the last ten years.” From Bunkio Matsuki, Descriptive Catalogue of an Important Collection of Japanese and Chinese Pottery, Porcelain, Bronzes, Brocades, Prints, Embroideries, Kakemono, Screens, Ivories and Gold Lacquers Selected by Mr. Bunkio Matsuki of Kobe, Japan and Boston (1898).

63 Yamanaka and Company, Art Treasures from the Imperial Palace in Pekin [sic] (1917).

64 Yamanaka and Company, Ancient Chinese Art: A Remarkable Collection (1914).

65 See, for instance, the article entitled “Embarrassment of Riches,” from the 18 March 1996 issue of the New Yorker. In March of 1913 the imperial family approached J. P. Morgan's partners with the intention of selling “for own account and in entirety palace collection including pearls, bronzes, porcelains, etc.”

66 In the Catalogue of Japanese Artist's Materials (1899), Matsuki boasted that his “Japanese brushes for water color painting are the best made in Japan … Being the sole agent for this country, I handle exclusively the brushes, papers, silks, etc. made for the Fine Art Schools of Tokio [sic] and Kioto [sic].”

67 Bunkio Matsuki, Remarkable Wood Carvings and Silk Embroidery at Copley Hall (1902).

68 In the catalogue for Remarkable Wood Carvings and Silk Embroidery at Copley Hall (1902), the introduction promised that the “collection herein described was collected by Bunkio Matsuki, who has included the private collections made by his ancestors, known as the Tatekawa family.” It went on to give an embellished history of Matsuki's family of artisans and architects.

69 Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Antique Chinese Porcelains and Pottery (1908).

70 According to the Catalogue of an Exhibition of Ancient Japanese Brocades, Embroideries, and Fabrics (1936), “The present collection … was formed by Mr. Sadajiro Yamanaka … after many years's [sic] hard effort with his earnest desire to keep together all those interesting fabrics under one roof which otherwise would have been scattered about mercilessly unnoticed of its real artistic as well as historical value.”

71 Yamanaka and Company, Catalogue of Ukiyoye Paintings, Prints, Rare Screens, Illustrated Books, and Kakemonos Belonging to the Japanese Connoisseur Bunshichi Kobayashi (1902).

72 Bunkio Matsuki, Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Chinese and Japanese Paintings, Screens, Prints, Chinese Porcelains, Wood Carvings and Gold Lacquers from the Collection of the Japanese Connoisseur Bunkio Matsuki of Boston, Mass. Collected in Japan during the Last Fifteen Years (1910).

73 See Bunkio Matsuki, Print Sale (1906).

74 From Bunkio Matsuki, Catalogue of Antique Chinese Porcelains and Pottery (1908). Ernest Fenollosa went on to write that “Mr. Bunkio Matsuki of Boston again distinguishes himself by bringing to us, at a time when they are becoming rare in his own country, a small, but choice and representative collection of old color prints.”

75 Bunkio Matsuki, Print Sale (1906).

76 For additional discussions on Ernest Fenollosa and his role in the collecting and study of Asian art, see, for instance, Lawrence W. Chisolm, Fenollosa: The Far East and American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963); and Van Wyck Brooks, Fenollosa and His Circle (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1940).

77 Bunkio Matsuki, Arms and Armor of Old Japan (1905).

78 See, for instance, Warren I. Cohen, East Asian Art and American Culture: A Study in International Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992). The symbiotic and yet tension-filled relationship between dealers, scholars, and museum curators was not confined to the Asian art field. For a monograph that discusses the European scene, see Robert Jensen's aforementioned work, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe.

79 Yamanaka and Company, Collection of Chinese and Other Far Eastern Art (1943). The publication's foreword went on to declare that “China is a country that has carried on its tradition for over five thousand years without any break in its culture, development of art, aesthetic enjoyment and religion. The Chinese possess an inherent artistic consciousness that explains the exquisiteness of their art. They take pride in every opportunity to express their love for aesthetic beauty and think nothing of the patience and toil required to accomplish that purpose. Their daily lives typify an existence lacking completely the turmoil and haste that is so much a part of the activities of the occidental [sic].”

80 Edgell, G. H., “Exhibitions of the Art of Our Allies,” Boston Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, 41, 245 (Oct. 1943), 5557.

81 Alfred Salmony, “The Yamanaka Sale,” Art News, 15 May 1944.

Her work has appeared in the Journal of Asian American Studies, Amerasia Journal, and several anthologies. She is currently completing a book manuscript that examines the ways in which cross-cultural encounters shaped the development of ethnic identities, aesthetic definitions, and nationalist discourses for Asian Americans, white Americans, and East Asians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I would like to thank the anonymous readers of the Journal of American Studies for their comments. This article is dedicated to the memory of my maternal grandmother, Ai-Chun Anna Ku, for all of her support and wisdom throughout the years.

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Merchants of Asianness: Japanese Art Dealers in the United States in the Early Twentieth Century

  • CONSTANCE J. S. CHEN

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