Connected \\ March 15, 2021
A curator reflects on lockdown
As March 13th came and went, I’ve been contemplating my year of lockdown and desperately wishing for a time when this immobility and isolation becomes a thing of the past. I know that I’m not alone. Nearly every person on the planet is confronting this same crisis, remembering last meals with friends, hurried hugs, final goodbyes and the long months of loneliness and despair that have followed. For some, like my colleague Bing Wang’s mother in China, those anniversaries were months earlier than our own here in Salem. As a nurse in Tianjin, she was on the early frontlines, valiantly coming out of retirement to train medical staff heading to Wuhan in January. I remember sitting with Bing and Stephanie Tung in the staff conference room that January as we refined the checklist for our upcoming Early Photography of China exhibition. We were desperately worrying about Bing’s mom, but I never truly contemplated that those faraway struggles would become our own less than two months later.
A curator’s life often involves travel – it’s one of the joys of my job to connect with works of art and people around the globe. With the arrival of my daughter in 2014, I scaled back my peripatetic life a bit but even then, travel remained a central component of my work. Until 2020. This past year, I haven’t traveled anywhere. My nearly seven-year-old is young enough that she can’t even remember a time when I didn’t put her to bed every night. Since lockdown, I have been present for all but three of those bedtime stories, one of the many silver linings of this terrible year.
Courtesy photo. Photo by Karina Corrigan.
Artists in Guangzhou, China. View of the foreign factories at Canton (Guangzhou), about 1805, reverse glass painting, Gift of the Misses Aimee and Rosamond Lamb in memory and in honor of Thomas Lamb, 1967, E78680. © Peabody Essex Museum/ Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo.
The conference was organized in conjunction with a major international exhibition featuring Chinese reverse glass paintings from Vitromusée Romont’s permanent collection as well as works from two private collections in France and Germany. I joked with many of my colleagues that this was destined to be a “conference of extreme focus,” but I was eager for the chance to see the exhibition and the museum’s permanent collection. I’ve always been fascinated by this type of smooth, limpid painting on the reverse side of a piece of glass. First introduced to China by Jesuit priests at the Forbidden City in the middle of the 18th century, the practice of reverse glass painting in China was taken up in earnest in the 1780s by the emerging community of artists in Guangzhou who catered particularly for foreign clients. These vivid paintings on the backs of imported, slightly irregular, hand blown sheets of glass were often based on European prints. In this Chinese export watercolor, an artist carefully paints on the reverse of a framed sheet of glass, adapting the European print of a woman mounted for reference in front of him.
Artists in Guangzhou, China. Artist creating a reverse glass painting, about 1790, opaque watercolor on paper. Museum purchase, with funds donated in part by Fritz Gold. E83895.21
PEM’s storied collection of Asian export art includes a rich and largely unpublished group of over sixty Chinese export reverse paintings on glass. Many survive with early histories in Massachusetts and most are based on European prints. One familiar subject in reverse painting – a portrait of George Washington – was at the center of an early American lawsuit.
Artists in Guangzhou, China. George Washington, 1800–1815, after a painting by Gilbert Stuart, reverse glass painting, Gift of Mr. Howell N. White, Jr., 1970, E78992. © Peabody Essex Museum/ Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo.
In 1801, when John E. Sword, Captain of the ship Connecticut headed out on his second voyage to China, he brought with him a portrait of Washington he had purchased from Gilbert Stuart. While in China, Sword commissioned 100 copies of the Stuart portrait in oil on canvas and reverse glass from artists in Guangzhou, which he proceeded to sell in Philadelphia to a community eager for their own portrait of the first President. When Stuart learned of these Cantonese versions of his Washington portrait, he successfully sued Sword for copyright infringement in the Philadelphia courts. How ironic then, that even the ‘original’ Stuart painting was in fact also a copy of sorts – one of over 60 replicas Stuart painted of his Athenaeum portrait and sold widely for $100 apiece. [For more on this fascinating story, see Maggie Cao’s article]. A related work, a Chinese reverse painted memorial to Washington, will be featured in the upcoming Putnam Galleries of American and Native American art, slated to open in November 2021.
Artists in Guangzhou, China. The Apotheosis of Washington, after 1802, after a print by John James Barralet, published by Simon Chandron and Barralet, 1802, reverse glass painting, Museum purchase, made possible by an anonymous donor, 1978, E81885. © Peabody Essex Museum/ Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo.
Vitromusée Romont in Romont, Switzerland. Photo by Karina Corrigan.
In Romont, I encountered an audience nearly as (in some cases even more!) fascinated by these complex works of cultural and artistic hybridity as I am. Vitromusée Romont, a museum devoted entirely to the glass arts, is housed in a former castle first begun in the 13th century.
The collection includes a diverse range of historic and contemporary works of art in glass including stained glass, glass objects, and tools and materials related to the glass arts. The “new” wing of the castle, which dates to the 16th century, houses the largest collection of reverse painted glass in the world. The complex also includes the Vitrocentre, a partner institution dedicated to scientific research on glass arts.
Detail of contemporary stained glass at the entrance to the museum. Photo by Karina Corrigan.
Selections of European reverse paintings on glass in the Vitromusée Romont's collection. Photo by Karina Corrigan.
The conference brought together senior and emerging scholars from Asia, Europe and the Americas to explore one specific artistic medium from multiple perspectives. For two days, we listened to astonishingly wide-ranging talks on Chinese reverse paintings: not only new research on works made for 18th century clients in London, Paris and Amsterdam, but also examples which survive in Vietnamese and Southeast Asian Buddhist temples (and desperately need to be better documented and preserved), talks on works made at Beijing workshops for the Qianlong Emperor, and even a talk on 19th century Japanese export reverse paintings (a new collecting goal for PEM!)
Conference participants. Photo courtesy of Vitromusée Romont
Content is critical at events like this and we were rewarded abundantly, but these types of gatherings are also essential for networking and cross-pollination. The conference opened dialogues between people working in widely disparate areas of Asian and European art history. Within the stone walls of the 13th century castle and over hot cups of Swiss chocolate during breaks between talks, we hatched dozens of ideas for future research and exhibitions. These hothouses of deep conversation are where the seeds for future international collaborative projects are sown. It may be years before some of these ideas bloom, but the feeling was palpable that something significant was happening at this gathering in a little village in Switzerland. Later this year, Vitromusée Romont will publish the proceedings from the conference, sharing some of this new research with a much wider audience.
Detail of a 20th century Chinese reverse glass portrait of Chairman Mao with a reflection of a reverse glass painted lantern in the background. Both works are from the Collection of Rupprecht Mayer. Photo by Karina Corrigan.
Regrettably, it was soon time for me to bid au revoir to old and new friends so I could get home for bedtime stories with my daughter. What should have been a relatively straightforward series of trains and flights from Romont to Salem, ended up being a comically convoluted 39 hour trip home thanks to European Storm Dennis, “one of the most intense extratropical cyclones ever recorded.” In the process, I got waylaid in Amsterdam overnight.
Last minute, I managed to see my dear friend and Asia in Amsterdam co-curator Femke Diercks for dinner and meet her new baby for the first time. In retrospect, the whole trip – even getting stranded overnight at Schiphol – now seems like a gift. If I wasn’t going to be able to go anywhere for a long time, it seemed appropriate to end my travels with a stimulating and convivial conference and then to see a host of friends old and new before hunkering down for a full year.
Making Dutch lemonade from travel lemons, with Femke Diercks, David de Haan and their daughters at their home in Amsterdam.
"Schiphol, have I told you lately that I love you?" Amsterdam's airport is - without a doubt - my perennial favorite. After a late dinner at Femke's house, I headed back to the airport where a lovely man at Passport Control let me back through security. A few hours later I was off to my early morning rerouted flight to Paris and from there onto Boston. Look at us standing so close together and without masks! Good times.