William Sturgis Bigelow

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Portrait of Sturgis Bigelow

William Sturgis Bigelow (1850–1926), son of Henry Jacob Bigelow, was a prominent American collector of Japanese art.[1] He was one of the first Americans to live in Japan[citation needed], and, through his donations to Boston area museums, helped to form the standards by which Japanese art and culture were appreciated in the west.

Early career[edit]

Bigelow received his degree in medicine from Harvard University in 1874, and continued his medical studies in Europe for five years, under Louis Pasteur. His primary interest was bacteriology, but when his father, a surgeon, pressured him to follow in that profession, Bigelow abandoned a medical career.

Bigelow and Japan[edit]

Bigelow began collecting Japanese art as a student in Paris. [2] In 1882, inspired by lectures on Japan delivered by Edward Sylvester Morse, Bigelow traveled to Japan. There he subsidized the scholarly work of Morse and another young Harvard graduate Ernest Fenollosa, both of whom were teaching at Japanese universities. Bigelow remained in Japan for seven years, traveling with Morse and Fenollosa to parts of the country off limits to other foreigners. With the special authorizations of the Japanese government, Bigelow, Fellonosa and Morse were able to explore parts of Japan closed to outside viewers for centuries. The group visited the Shōsō-in (Treasure House) of Tōdai-ji, viewing hidden treasures of Emperor Shōmu, and were granted a few shards of pottery, the only items belonging to the Shōsō-in known to currently reside outside of it. Among the many other items he obtained during his time in Japan were a set of gilt bronze statues from Hōryū-ji, of the historical Buddha and attendants, known as the Shaka Trinity statues, and a mandala from the Hokke-do (Lotus Sutra Hall) of Tōdai-ji, one of the oldest Japanese paintings to ever leave Japan. Morse collected ancient ceramics, Bigelow collected armor, and Fenollosa, often with Bigelow's financial help, collected paintings.[3]

Bigelow's grave at Homyoin temple.

Returning to the United States, Bigelow donated approximately 75,000[4] objects of Japanese art to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His collections, along with those of Morse and Fenollosa (the latter paid for by Charles Goddard Weld) Okakura, and a handful of others, made the newly founded Department of the Art of Asia at the Museum of Fine Arts the largest collection of Japanese art anywhere outside Japan; a distinction it still holds today.[5] He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1911.[6].

Bigelow's enthusiasm for the elite male camaraderie he enjoyed in Japan is reflected in the nature of these collections. Where Parisian collections emphasized Japanese domestic objects, including women's kimonos and allied textiles, modern decorated ceramics, and prints associated with the pleasure quarters famed for their bawdy entertainments and stylized forms of prostitution, the Boston collectors focused on the elite all-male aspects of Japanese society: the tea ceremony, the samurai, and elite communities of Buddhist monks.

With Fenollosa, Bigelow converted to Tendai Buddhism, about which he taught and lectured back in Boston. There he used Episcopalian terms, such as bishop, to describe senior monks[7], and dismissed simpler forms of Buddhism, such as Zen and Shin, referring to the latter as a "very big and popular and easy-going sect...the Salvation Army of Buddhism"[8]

In traveling through Japan and forming their collections, Bigelow and his Boston colleagues were helped by one of Fenollosa's students, Okakura Kakuzō. Inspired by these Westerners' admiration for the traditions of the Japanese aristocracy, Okakura, with Bigelow's financial backing, founded an art school, the Nihon Bijutsuin (Japan Fine Arts Academy), to preserve and promote traditional forms of Japanese art.

When in 1898 Okakura was ousted by faculty and students at the school who objected to his rigid focus on traditional art, Bigelow hired him to oversee the Japanese art collections at the Museum of Fine Arts.[9] Okakura sustained his patron's emphasis on transforming the Western image of a tea house filled with women and domestic utensils to that of a temple filled with religious scroll paintings and sculptures. When in 1909 the museum moved to a new building, a gallery and courtyard garden designed to mimic a temple and its forecourt was built to display Japanese sculpture. This very popular space became a model for other American museums displaying East Asian art. [10]


Spiritual Evolution[edit]

Bigelow's publicity for his vision of Japan extended to his teachings on Buddhism. He delivered the annual Ingersoll Lecture on the Immortality of Man at Harvard in 1908, which was published as book Buddhism and Immortality (1908). There Bigelow used the scientific language of nature selection to explain spiritual evolution as when an individual emerges from "unconditioned consciousness" and "moves up the scale of evolution guided by natural selection." Next the individual moves to a level of celestial experience and finally is able to "return to the unconditioned consciousness from which all things emerge. In his view, familial ties were created by reincarnaton and what he called "thought transference."[11] Bigelow's contemporaries compared his relationship o the Japanese monk who instructed him in Buddhism as that of "a filial child" to a "benevolent father." [12] Historian T.J. Jackson Lears has analyzed Bigelow's embrace of Buddhims as "leaving a stern father for a benign Ajari [teacher]." [13] Bigelow accepted both material and spiritual evolution and believed Buddhism and science were compatible.[14]

Bigelow in Boston[edit]

Biglow's preference for the company of men was manifest nowhere more clearly than on his island retreat of Tuckernuck, off Nantucket. There he invited other men to enjoy the pleasures of dining and swimming in a world without women. Bigelow was heart-broken when George Cabot Lodge, the young poet he had chosen as his spiritual son to inherit his island estate, died there at the age of thirty-five. Lodge's 1906 poem "Tuckanuck" celebrates the island as a place "to dream an Eastern dream, starred by the cry/ of sea-birds...." [15] [16] A more exuberant letter from Lodge to Bigelow anticipating a trip to the island reads "kind Sir! Surf Sir! And sun, Sir! And Nakedness! -Oh Lord! How I want to get my clothes off-alone in natural solitudes."[17]

The line between homosexuality and homoeroticism blurs in Bigelow's biography; he has been described as "at once an epicure and a mystic, who professed an ascetic religion and wore beautiful Charvet haberdashery."[18] He was also reported to have proposed marriage in 1899 to the Croatian soprano Milka Ternina, who was at the time singing at the Metropolitan Opera. He gave her a 38-carat diamond named “Cleveland”, while a week later he presented her a letter with his marriage proposal. She rejected the proposal but from then on their relationship became more intimate. During their relationship, he gave her a number of Japanese objects which she donated in 1930 to the Etnografski Muzej in Zagreb.[19]

Bigelow was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1911. Upon his death, in accordance with his final requests, Bigelow's remains were cremated; half the ashes were buried at Mii-dera, just outside Kyoto, along with those of Fenollosa, and half were interred in the Sturgis family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery.[20]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Kelly, Howard A.; Burrage, Walter L., eds. (1920). "Bigelow, Henry Jacob". American Medical Biographies. Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company.
  2. ^ Reed, Christopher (2017). Bachelor Japanist, Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. New York: New York Columbia University Press. p. 125.
  3. ^ Christopher Reed. (2017). Bachelor Japanists, Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. New York Columbia University Press pp. 142
  4. ^ Reed, Christopher (2017). Bachelor Japanist, Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 125.
  5. ^ "Art of Asia". Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
  6. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 20, 2011.
  7. ^ Christopher Reed. (2017). Bachelor Japanists, Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. New York Columbia University Press pp. 152
  8. ^ Christopher Reed. (2017). Bachelor Japanists, Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. New York Columbia University Press pp. 151
  9. ^ Christopher Reed. (2017). Bachelor Japanists, Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. New York Columbia University Press pp. 166
  10. ^ Christopher Reed. (2017). Bachelor Japanists, Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. New York Columbia University Press pp. 171-178
  11. ^ Brooks, Van Wyck (1962), Fenollosa and His Circle, with Other Essays in Biography. New York: Dutton
  12. ^ Murakata, Akiko (1971). Selected Letters of Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, Ph.D. Dissertation, George Washington University
  13. ^ Jackson Lears, T.J. (1994). No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, p. 229
  14. ^ American encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912: Victorian culture & the limits of dissent, Thomas A. Tweed, 2000, pp. 107–108
  15. ^ Lodge, George Cabot (1896). "Tuckanuck." Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 93, no. 554, p. 285.
  16. ^ Christopher Reed. (2017). Bachelor Japanists, Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. New York Columbia University Press pp. 164
  17. ^ Christopher Reed. (2017). Bachelor Japanists, Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. New York Columbia University Press pp. 161
  18. ^ Jackson Lears, T.J. (1994). No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 226. ISBN 0-226-46970-0. Retrieved 2008-11-21.
  19. ^ Renata Santo, "Legacy of Milka Trnina in the Collection of Non-European Cultures of the Ethnographic Museum", Etnološka istraživanja 17-18 (2014), 245-262. http://hrcak.srce.hr/file/197070
  20. ^ Lot #310 Catalpa Path; lot card on file at Mount Auburn Cemetery.
  • Frederic, Louis (2002). "Japan Encyclopedia." Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • "A History of the Asiatic Department: A Series of Illustrated Lectures Given in 1957 by Kojiro Tomita (1890-1976)." Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1990.

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