My Favorite Things: Marc Onetto on “Shipwreck off the Coast of Alaska” at Seattle Art Museum

“This painting is in fact very good when you think about the fact that the painter only had a sketch from the logbook and some description. He had never seen it.”
– Marc Onetto

Take it from a sailor who has been to Lituya Bay—Louis-Philippe Crépin accurately captured the setting of this expedition disaster in his painting, Shipwreck off the Coast of Alaska. Born in Paris, Crépin became a specialist in marine painting and made his debut at the Salon of 1796 with a painting of the port of Brest. His primary patron throughout his long career would be the Naval Ministry of the government. Many of his works are in the National Maritime Museum in Paris, while others are in provincial museums throughout France. This work is likely the first painting by Crépin in an American museum.

Marc Onetto sails to Alaska annually. After finding a publication of explorer Count Jean-François de La Pérouse’s logbook in California, Onetto was inspired to visit Lituya Bay, among other uncharted Alaskan territories where La Pérouse’s expedition traveled in 1786. Thankfully Onetto has not encountered the early morning ebbing current in the pass of the bay that led to the tragic death of 21 sailors in a matter of minutes. Experience the drama of this painting in person when you see it hanging in Extreme Nature: Two Landscape Paintings from the Age of Enlightenment on view through December 9, 2018.

Want to know more about this painting and how it came into SAM’s collection? Read “The Ins and Outs of Acquisitions: A Newly Discovered french Masterpiece.” 

Subscribe to our My Favorite Things playlist on YouTube for more interviews featuring artists, innovators, specialists, and community leaders.

Artwork: Shipwreck Off the Coast of Alaska, 1806, Louis-Philippe Crepin, French, 1772-1851, oil on canvas, 40 15/16 × 58 11/16 in., Seattle Art Museum, European Art Acquisition Fund; Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund; by exchange Gift of Mrs. Lew V. Day in memory of her husband; Gift of Arthur F. Ederer; H. Neil Meitzler, Issaquah, Washington; Col. Philip L. Thurber Memorial; Gift of Mrs. Donald E. Frederick; The late Mr. Arrigo M. Young and Mrs. Young in memory of their son, Lieut. (j.g.) Lawrence H. Young; Phillips Morrison Memorial; Gift of Mrs. Oswald Brown, in memory of her parents Simeon and Fannie B. Leland; Gift of Miss Grace G. Denny in memory of her sister Miss Coral M. Denny; Gift of friends in memory of Frank Molitor; Purchased from funds contributed in memory of Henry H. Judson; Purchased from the bequest of Charles M. Clark; Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr.; Norman and Amelia Davis Collection; Norman Davis Collection; Mrs. Cebert Baillargeon, in memory of her husband, 2017.15.

How Picasso Brought Masks to Europe and Left the Masquerade Behind

Throughout the 20th century, vast collections of African masks made their way into foreign lands and are now on display as the heads of missing bodies. Masks are constantly seen in museums and galleries, on eBay, and at sidewalk sales. In this dislocated state, African masks have sometimes found themselves cast in roles that are shockingly counter to their original intent.

One example is Pablo Picasso’s work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York), a painting lauded as one of the catalysts in 20th-century art. Pablo Picasso’s decision to take the features of African masks and place them on two naked women was revolutionary, the first step in the radical transformation of space and volume that would become Cubism.

One wonders what would have happened if Picasso hadn’t separated the masks from the masquerade. What if, instead, a full masquerade had come to Paris? For the sake of speculation, let’s imagine the visit of a Dan masquerader from the Ivory Coast, known as a Ge, whose masks were common in French collections. Drummers and singers would escort the Ge masquerader as he moved quickly through the streets to Picasso’s studio. He would have donned a massive costume of raffia grasses, feathers, and fur accents to underscore that he was not from any normal human realm but from the sacred forests. Bells and drums, shouts and songs would contribute to the blur of fast-moving activity that halted in front of the artist’s door.

Pounding to be let in, the Ge would speak in a grave and distorted voice, while a translator would shout a demand to open the door. Picasso would be pushed aside as the Ge entered the room, and pandemonium would break out as African eyes beheld masks like their own were depicted atop the naked bodies of two women with pale skin.

With outrage and confusion spreading, everyone would turn to gauge the reaction of the Ge, the supreme authority. He would stop and stare, then order everyone except Picasso and the translator to leave the studio. The Ge would then sit on the group and gesture for Picasso to sit nearby as he explained a few things.

First: no mask was ever to be worn by a woman, and most definitely not a naked woman in the middle of a room with other naked women. Defying all proper behavior, this breach of etiquette required immediate correction, so songs and offerings for women would be prescribed.

The Ge would ask Picasso why he put masks on such women and who they were. Picasso might bring up difficulties with the women in his life, and how he’d been looking at pictures of masks in books and at a museum, then had collected a postcard of naked women from a place called Dahomey, marveling at their sleek bodies but also worrying about the diseases circulating in the bordellos of Paris.

In response, the Ge might offer practical advice about how to manage relationships and to seek alliances with spirits that would inspire joy instead of dark fears. He could also explain that masks were not to be bought and sold; instead, they were intended to initiate visitations from beings who would emerge from the forests to contribute their wisdom in times of confusion.
Days and weeks might pass as the Ge transferred aspects from the system of thought from the Côte d’Ivoire. It was his role to teach younger men ways to operate in the world, and he would have found Picasso’s troubled mind in need of adjustment. To alleviate some of the artist’s perplexity about life, the Ge would recommend that he consider attending a school convened in the forest, where he would learn about his responsibilities as a young man, how to survive in difficult circumstances, what it takes to manage a family, when and how to show respect for women, the practical skills of life, and all about the art of performance as a means to express visions of human aspiration. Picasso would be offered a chance to immerse himself in a masquerade that was a school, a system, and an overriding ideal.

Instead of this full-bodied experience, Picasso invented his own approach to African masks and sculptures. Masks became heads without any voice or body. They became voiceless ambassadors, who were often cast as characters in other’s artistic fantasies.

Admittedly, exporting an entire masquerade is difficult and can be inappropriate at times. Masquerades are intensely local, requiring special staging developed within communities that invest massive time and effort in them, often in deepest secrecy. They rely on collaborations among a multitude of talented artists who devote their creativity to performers whose identities are concealed, and transporting this cast and crew is not easy.

Artists today in the United States and across the globe are working with new interpretations of disguises that play out in creative ways. They are using digital mediums to bring masquerades into places where they have never been before, and creating new meanings as they empower new actors—such as women—to participate. They adapt iconography from multiple cultures and influences, weaving together inspiration from their family’s varied histories, the far-flung cities and rural areas in which they’ve lived, and artistic traditions from across the globe.

It’s a heady mixture of inspiring havoc. It’s a moving, whirling parade that invites us to respond—to take up or take off our own daily disguises and participate.

This is an edited excerpt of the essay, “Meet Me Where the Masks Are Alive and the Spirits Roam Free,” written by Pamela McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art for the Seattle Art Museum. The essay is included in the exhibition guide, Disguise: Masks & Global African Art.

Disguise: Masks & Global African Art is on view at the Seattle Art Museum. See this dynamic unfixed exhibition before it departs for the Fowler Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles on September 7.

“What Use Is Art, Anyhow?”

This is the story of a young scholar named Sherman Emery Lee (1918-2008).

Lee was first drawn to art and art history during college, in depression-era Washington, DC, before pursuing graduate studies at the Western Reserve University (today, Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland, OH. While completing his studies, he served as the assistant curator of Oriental Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. After receiving his PhD in 1941, he was hired by the Detroit Institute of Arts as Curator of Fine Eastern Art. Like many men of his generation, he joined the armed forces reserves in the 1940s, and he served in the United States Navy during World War II (1944-46)

Why are we now so interested in young Dr. Lee? Because, after he completed his Navy service, Sherman Lee became a Monuments Man. And, right now, we are more aware of Monuments Men than we ever were before.

In advance of Japan’s capitulation in August, 1945, Lee’s mentor from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Howard Hollis, wrote to a friend on the Roberts Commission (the American body responsible for recommending policy regarding art, monuments, and archives during WWII, leading to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section), recommending his young colleague for a role as a Monuments Man in Asia, if the section were to expand into the Pacific theatre. Hollis himself soon joined as Chief that newly established division, the Arts and Monuments Division (A&M) of the Civil Information and Education Section (CIE), for the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan (SCAP).

By 1946, his Navy duty complete, Lee joined his mentor in the A&M office in Tokyo. Initially an Advisor on Collections, Lee’s work as a Monuments Man after leaving the Navy reflects the post-war identity of the A&M section, as a civilian force. Unlike the story told in the George Clooney movie, The Monuments Men (2014), Lee’s work unfolded over the course of several years, and never involved him stepping on a land mine. Believing that art was both useful and important to human identity, Lee and his fellow post-war Monuments Men were charged with protecting, cataloguing, recovering, and repairing art and monuments, including those of their former enemies.

Initial discussions had Lee traveling to China, a country of his expertise, but instead he was sent to Japan. There, his reports tell of power and lighting issues hindering the repair of a pagoda, “fire hazard” threatening historic murals, and a long list of tedious but necessary tasks integral to the protection and saving of Japan’s cultural heritage. The process was expected to last five to ten years. To accomplish his mission, Lee and his colleagues worked closely with both the Japanese imperial family and government officers to help identify National Treasures, and protect them in future; they helped the Japanese plan and establish a new national archive; they helped collectors and private businesses recover objects that disappeared during wartime (including historic swords that were looted by Allied troops); they helped the National Museum set new “best practices,” and brought loan exhibitions to Japan from museums in the United States and Europe, for the people of Japan to enjoy; and they even helped Japan establish a system of National Parks, similar to the one in the United States. By the time he left Japan in 1948, Sherman Lee was Acting Chief of the Arts and Monuments Division.

While he never published his experiences as a Monuments Man (as did some others, including James Rorimer, upon whom Matt Damon’s character is loosely based in the movie), Sherman Lee did write about his experiences as they happened—in the form of letters to his superiors as well as to his colleagues. George Stout (the basis for George Clooney’s own character in the movie), the art conservator who, after cessation of hostilities in Europe, shifted his Monuments work from Europe to Asia, was the first Chief of the A&M in Japan, before the arrival of Hollis. After his departure in 1946, he remained in touch with Lee; the two even corresponded into their later years, after Stout had retired as director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Lee was still serving as the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

So, what does a Monuments Man—a former curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts and future director of the Cleveland Museum of Art—have to do with SAM? I will let Dr. Richard E. Fuller, founding director of the Seattle Art Museum, tell you himself:

Seattle Art Museum Annual Report, 1948

Seattle Art Museum Annual Report, 1948

In fact a native of Seattle (he was born here in 1918), Lee went to work for SAM even before his arrival, on the Fourth of July, 1948. Dr. Fuller sent Lee a Leica camera, to “make his trip to India as rewarding as possible” (Fuller, A Gift to the City, p. 26) before flying to Seattle to begin his work here. Lee’s experience and contacts initiated a new era of ambitious exhibitions and collecting for SAM. The National Museum of Japan, with whom Sherman Lee had worked so closely during his time as a Monuments Man, willingly lent National Treasures to the Seattle Art Museum’s Survey of the Art of Japan (9 November – 4 December 1949), and other National Treasures were exported and acquired by SAM during Lee’s time in Seattle. One of these Treasures was the renowned Poem Scroll with Deer (or, more popularly, the Deer Scroll), the largest extant portion of which is in SAM’s collection.

But Lee was known as “an outstanding scholar of art history both in the Oriental and Occidental fields” (Dr. Richard E. Fuller, SAM Annual Report, 1947), which he proved soon after his arrival in Seattle. Lee was instrumental in convincing the trustees of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to make a significant gift of painting and sculpture to SAM. The results of his negotiations were no less than the establishment of a European art collection in a museum that had formerly displayed framed facsimiles (high quality color photographs) of the Mona Lisa and other paintings in our galleries. He also made his own gifts of art to the collection, as well, unsurprisingly comprising both “Oriental and Occidental” objects.

Newspaper clipping from SAM archives, showing Sherman Lee with museum docents, 1950

Newspaper clipping from SAM archives, showing Sherman Lee with museum docents, 1950

Educational programming also increased and diversified during Sherman Lee’s time as Assistant —and later Associate— Director. He established a monthly Thursday evening lecture series for men (what not-appropriate-for-the-ladies topics might have been covered in these sessions, I wonder?), and trained the female corps of volunteer educators known as docents. In 1949 he gave a public lecture titled, “What Use Is Art, Anyhow?” His answer is not recorded in the SAM archives, but we know from his life and work that he found art greatly useful. He wrote the museum’s first handbook of the collection, published in 1951. He wrote scholarly articles on highlights of the museum’s Chinese, Japanese and South Asian collections, as well as on objects in Japanese public and private collections. He even participated in dialogues within his specialized field, writing a mixed review of a catalogue by a young scholar at the Los Angeles County Museum, Henry Trubner (who would later go on to a long career as SAM’s Curator of Asian Art and Chief Curator). Lee also had an influential presence in the local academic community, his position being a joint appointment between the museum and the University of Washington, where he taught Asian art history.

After four productive years in Seattle, Lee was lured away by the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he became Curator of Oriental Art (1952-58; he didn’t have to volunteer this time!), and ultimately Director (1958-83). Many years later, he returned to SAM when the downtown museum building first opened, in 1991. True to the lauded “Oriental and Occidental” perspective once celebrated by Dr. Fuller, this renowned scholar of Asian art declared the European Neoclassical art gallery his favorite in the new SAM.

SAM’s Monuments Man left a lasting impact on the museum—through his scholarship, connoisseurship and leadership, he proved the great usefulness of art in uplifting, educating and uniting communities, including Seattle.

Highlights of acquisitions made by Sherman Lee are currently featured in A Fuller View of China, Japan and Korea at the Asian Art Museum. Other works acquired by Lee are on view throughout the Seattle Art Museum and Asian Art Museum galleries.

-Sarah Berman, Curatorial Associate for Collections


Sources (all of which are accessible in the Seattle Art Museum’s Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library):

Archival documents:

Roberts Commission – Protection of Historical Monuments collection, National Archives, via Fold3.com

Ardelia Hall collection, National Archives, via Fold3.com

George Leslie Stout papers, Archives of American Art, via aaa.si.edu

Sherman E. Lee papers, Archives of American Art, via aaa.si.edu

Unpublished minutes of the Board of Trustees meetings, Seattle Art Museum, 1947-1952, Seattle Art Museum archives

Fuller, Richard E. Seattle Art Museum Annual Report. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, Seattle Art Museum archives

Books and articles about Sherman Lee:

Clark, Bill. Celebrating the Lees. Self-published, 2004

Fuller, Richard E. A Gift to the City: A History of the Seattle Art Museum and the Fuller Family. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1993, pp. 26-30

Milliken, William M. “Appointment of Sherman E. Lee,” in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 39, no. 8, Octover 1952, p. 217, via JSTOR.org

Stokrocki, Mary and Lee, Sherman. “The Making of a Curator: An Interview with Sherman Lee,” in Art Education, vol. 36, no. 3, May 1983, pp. 24-25, via JSTOR.org

Weber, Bruce. “Sherman Lee, Who Led Cleveland Museum, Dies at 90,” in The New York Times, July 11, 2008, p. C11

Books and articles by Sherman Lee:

Lee, Sherman E. Handbook, Seattle Art Museum: selected works from the permanent collections. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1951

Lee, Sherman E. “Review of The Art of Greater India, 3000 B.C. – 1800 A.D. by Henry Trubner,” in Artibus Asiae, vol. 13, no. 1/2, 1950, pp. 119-121, via JSTOR.org

Lee, Sherman E. “Japanese Monochrome Painting at Seattle,” in Artibus Asiae, vol. 14, no 1/2, 1951, pp. 43-61, via JSTOR.org

Lee, Sherman E. “A Kushan Yakshi Bracket,” in Artibus Asiae, vol. 12, no. 3, 1949, pp. 184-188, via JSTOR.org

Lee, Sherman E. “A Probably Sung Buffalo Painting,” in Artibus Asiae, vol. 12, no. 4, 1949, pp. 293-301, via JSTOR.org

Lee, Sherman E. “Sung Ceramics in the Light of Recent Japanese Research,” in Artibus Asiae, vol. 11, no. 3, 1948, pp. 165-175, via JSTOR.org

SAM Art: Small art, big story

Sometimes, collecting small has a big result.

In 1919, following his service in WWI, Richard E. Fuller traveled to “the Orient” with his parents, sister, and brother. Their trip took them from Vancouver, BC, to China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Burma, and India. However, the latter part of the trip nearly did not happen, as Fuller fell ill with appendicitis while in Nikko, Japan. His brother, Dr. Duncan Fuller, ultimately performed emergency surgery, with their father, Dr. Eugene Fuller, assisting. While Richard Fuller convalesced, his family explored the Nikko area, and began collecting small figures known as netsukes.

Years later, when Richard Fuller and his mother Margaret founded the Seattle Art Museum, they donated this large group of small objects to the museum’s collection. These small figures remain part of the museum’s holdings to this day, a collection for which SAM is famous around the world. The Duncan MacTavish Fuller Memorial Collection of netsukes is named in memory of Richard’s brother, and in honor of the unexpected turn of events in 1919 Japan.

Poetess Ono-no-komachi in her old age, sitting on a log, 18th-19th century, Japanese, ivory, 1 1/2 x 2 7/8 x 7/8 in., Duncan MacTavish Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.352. Currently on view in the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park.

The History in Art History, Part II: How This Painting Came to Seattle!

Recently I blogged about the scant history of the museum’s magnificent painting by Frederic Church, entitled A Country Home, which was a gift to the museum in 1965 from one Mrs. Paul C. Carmichael.  For five years I’ve been wanting to learn more about Mrs. Carmichael and how she came to Seattle and how she came to bring with her her great grandfather’s impressive picture by Church. I’ve been surprisingly lucky in research so many times that I’m now convinced that some strange forces guide our hands as we delve into the past—forces that make sure that lives are never forgotten. The forces directed me to Mrs. Carmichael just last week.

Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900), A Country Home, 1854; oil on canvas 32 x 51 in. Gift of Mrs. Paul C. Carmichael, 65.80

Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900), A Country Home, 1854; oil on canvas 32 x 51 in. Gift of Mrs. Paul C. Carmichael, 65.80

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The History in Art History: How did this painting get to Seattle?

Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900), A Country Home, 1854; oil on canvas 32 x 51 in. Gift of Mrs. Paul C. Carmichael, 65.80

Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900), A Country Home, 1854; oil on canvas 32 x 51 in. Gift of Mrs. Paul C. Carmichael, 65.80

For me, a work of art lives on in part by its association with people, places, and times past and present.  When we see objects in museums, in isolation, how do we understand them as expressions of a maker’s personal vision and circumstances and of viewers’ expectations in the artist’s own time and over the course of generations?  Each object of historical American art that I work with has endured because someone—a collector, a critic, an artist’s descendant, maybe—has been its champion, often when few others were.  Historical American art has for so much of our past been overshadowed by the taste in this country for European art, which signaled for so many the ideal of artistic achievement and good taste. 

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