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Samuel Morse: Reflections on Japanese Style

Samuel Morse of Amherst College in a lecture at the Asia Society.

Samuel Morse of Amherst College in a lecture at the Asia Society.

NEW YORK, April 8, 2009 – In conjunction with the Asia Society Museum exhibition Asian Journeys: Collecting Art in Post-war America, Samuel C. Morse, Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations, Amherst College, delivered a speechen titled "Reflections on Japanese Style—Sherman E. Lee and the Collecting of Japanese Art." This lecture was the second of three talks in honor of the art historian Dr. Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008).

Morse began with a personal reminiscence of accompanying Sherman Lee on gallery visits around the US in the 1990s. Though Lee spoke little on these visits, Morse recalled that it was interesting to observe the subtle facial expressions of this foremost connoisseur of Asian art, who had over 50 years of experience with the subject.

According to Morse, Lee and John D. Rockefeller 3rd, founder of Asia Society, bonded over both a passion for Asian art as well as a belief that art could help promote diplomacy. Both played a central role in rehabilitating Japan after World War II. John D. Rockefeller 3rd first visited Japan in 1929 and developed a sincere appreciation of Japanese art and people. Morse noted that Rockefeller's involvement in the Dulles peace mission to Japan in 1951 was unique in that he was primarily concerned with promoting education and cultural relations rather than military affairs.

For his part, Sherman E. Lee worked in Tokyo for the Arts and Monuments Department of the Supreme Commander Allied Forces in the Pacific from 1946 to 1948, helping inventory and protect major Japanese collections of art. There he had direct access to the most important art treasures in Japan. Guided by Japanese art scholars and curators such as Takata Osamu, Lee was able to cultivate an orthodox Japanese taste. The relationship that Lee built with Japanese dealers and collectors not only helped shape his understanding of Japanese and Chinese art, but also facilitated important future acquisitions he recommended to the Seattle Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Rockefellers. Lee was also instrumental in making the treasures housed in the Japanese imperial warehouse Shosin available for public viewing.

Together, Rockefeller and Lee played a major role in organizing the Exhibition of Japanese Painting and Sculpture, sponsored by the government of Japan, in 1953. Comprised of 91 artworks, the exhibition attracted 420,000 visitors in major cities across the US and, according to Morse, marked a new era for the reception of Japanese art in America.

As the author of the influential History of Far Eastern Art (first edition, 1964), Lee shaped the course of Asian art historical study in the United States for more than four decades. In his view, the genius of Japanese art lies in the coexistence of the decorative and the realistic—a trait clearly illustrated by many works that he helped museums and collectors acquire, including a 17th-century tea leaf jar decorated with animated birds, and a square serving dish with natural and geometric designs painted with copper green glaze, in Asia Society Museum's Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection.

The collections of Japanese art that Sherman E. Lee helped build in America are the proof of Professor Morse's concluding words: "Art can promote diplomacy, and we are all beneficiaries."

Reported by Daisy Wang