68. Theodore Francis Green As A Collector Of Chinese Paintings

68. Theodore Francis Green As a Collector of Chinese Paintings

My colleague Hong Zaixin, who has been doing very interesting research and writing on the early collecting and appreciation of Chinese painting in the West, sends me some recent correspondence in which the name of Theodore Francis Green has come up as a collector of Chinese paintings, and instead of writing him a long account of the Green I knew, I am making a Reminiscence for public posting out of it. Since there is ample information on the web about this distinguished and long-lived senator from Rhode Island, including a Wikopedia biography, I need not give information of that kind, but will only remind those old enough to have followed his later career, as I did, that he was a powerful Democratic leader, supporting FDR in his New Deal and Lyndon Johnson in his Great Society. He held the position of Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee until he was 92. The story goes that when someone asked him on his ninetieth birthday “What does it feel like to be ninety, Senator Green?” he replied, “Considering the alternative, if feels just fine.” But I understand that that story is told of others, and may be apocryphal. He lived to be nearly a hundred (1867-1966).

What I do know is that he came to the Freer Gallery from time to time while I was a curator there, always bringing scroll paintings with him for us to look at and read inscriptions for him, and—too often—for our mounter Takashi Sugiura to remount for him free. Green had sponsored a special congressional bill to permit Sugiura and his family to enter the U.S. outside the regular immigration quota, so that he could become the Freer’s mounter, and he felt that Sugiura still owed him a lot. But it was Sugiura’s feeling that he had long since repaid his obligation, and he complained to us that Green’s paintings typically weren’t worthy of his time and expert technique. I sympathized with him, since the paintings Green brought to show us were mostly misattributed and low-class. He collected in quantity; I seem to remember his telling us that he made a practice of never paying more than fifty dollars for a painting. He was not, then, a welcome visitor at the Freer.

After Green’s death in 1966, by which time I had left the Freer and was teaching in California, I began to hear interesting stories about what had become of his large collection, hundreds of paintings. A lifelong bachelor, he had no children, and left the paintings to be divided, sheerly by number, among five or six nieces and nephews. And they, knowing nothing about Chinese paintings, were trying to find ways to dispose of them. Max Loehr reportedly visited one of them in Rhode Island, went through his or her group, and bought for the Fogg Museum the very beautiful meiren (beautiful woman) painting that my seminar students and I were later to publish for the first time in our 1971 Restless Landscape exhibition and catalog of late Ming painting—we saw it on our East Coast trip, were captivated by it, and accepted (wrongly) the interpolated inscription with a “signature” of an artist named Wu Zho, a date corresponding to 1643, and the “information” that it was a portrait of the famous courtesan-poet Li Yin or Mme. Hedong. Several years later I came to the realization that we had been taken in: it was not a portrait at all but a generic meiren picture, dating instead around the mid-18th century or a bit later. Finding in an old Chinese reproduction book a real portrait of Li Yin, looking very different—not sexy at all, not striking a seductive pose or projecting a come-hither look--I put together a lecture titled “The Real Mme. Ho-tung” and presented it a number of times in different places—it was the real beginning of my late-life obsession with Ming-Qing paintings of women, and eventually with the larger category of painting I now call vernacular. When I gave this lecture at Harvard, it caused Max Loehr some distress--I should have been more sensitive. Max was retired, and John Hay was teaching there; John and I spent hours arguing, he refusing to give up on the inscription or the identification of the picture as a Liu Yin portrait.

One of the nieces, it turned out, lived in California, in the hills above Stanford (I only vaguely remember her name—Steers?), and at her invitation I went to see the paintings in her part of the inheritance, spending several sessions going through them. By this time, perhaps as part of a shift from museum curatorship to academic teaching, I was growing more tolerant of paintings that were not of the kind the Freer might purchase but were worthy of attention anyway. And I was enjoying the game of re-attributing good pictures that had false signatures but could still be assigned to particular artists or schools. When this niece sold most of her paintings in a San Francisco auction, I bought several of that kind. A fine landscape on silk, for one, which bore a false “Dong Yuan” signature and attribution, but from which the original artist’s inscription, by the late Ming master Gao Yang with the date 1609, had not been removed. It was in our Restless Landscape exhibition (no. 45).

Looking back, then, I would see Theodore Francis Green as a crotchety and sometimes over-demanding eccentric who nonetheless didn’t do so badly as a collector—his eye sometimes recognized quality even though it could not read inscriptions or judge attributions.

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