Monthly Archives: August 2013

Digitizing Japanese Illustrated Books

I am lucky enough to be working with Watson Library and the Department of Asian Art to digitize the Japanese Illustrated Books collection.  These are books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries featuring artwork by great Japanese print artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, Kuwagata Keisai (Kitao Masayoshi), Kōno Bairei, Santō Kyōden and many others.  They are beautifully preserved, and the colors in some of the artworks are still extremely vibrant and clear.  The subject matter varies; some books are studies of artistic forms and proportions, nature, or fashion, while others are story or poetic illustration. Here’s one by Kitagawa Utamaro:

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My main challenge with scanning these books has been the fragility of the paper and dealing with the stitched binding used in these types of publications that produces a kind of reverse fold of the page.  Often the paper is so thin that the next page will show through, so in most of these I had to cut a piece of plain white paper to fit in between the folded page.  Getting the paper in place has to be done very slowly because of the fragility of the rice paper, but the end result is a really clear image that does the artwork justice!  These books are exceedingly rare and it is really great to be able to provide high quality scans so that a wider audience can experience them.

The Shell Book (Shiohi no tsuto) is a gorgeous woodblock printed book, dated 1789.  The illustrations were done by Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806), considered to be one of the greatest Japanese woodblock print artists of all time who was a seminal influence on many European Impressionist artists in their use of ‘Japanese style’ or perspective in their artwork.   The beautiful arrangement of the pages allows the text to become a part of the artwork.  On this page, the words seem to bob along the surface of the water, hovering over the shells and seaweed scattered below.

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The Itchō picture album (Itchō gafu, 1770), features artwork by Hanabusa Itchō (1652-1724).  The artwork in this book caught my attention for its stylistic departure from a lot of the other books in this collection.  Hanabusa Itchō’s art is less formal and feels more poetic and abstract than some of his counterparts.  The strong outlines and dramatic compositions give his work a more personal, interpretive quality that is appealing to a modern audience.  I really love how his pages (and this and this) have a timeless quality, as if they could have as easily been drawn today as in the 1700s.

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Yoshiwara Courtesans: A New Mirror Comparing the Calligraphy of Beauties (Yoshiwara keisei: Shin bijin awase jihitsu kagami, 1784) is a beautiful book featuring art by Kitao Masanobu (Santō Kyōden, 1761-1816).  The book is a tribute of sorts to the world of the courtesan, produced in striking color and detail.  I love this portion of the book for its still vibrant colors.

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It is not as easy to tell in a reproduction, but the colors in the original are still bright and vivid.  The rich black, geometric patterned kimono on the right page is, to me, the most complex and beautiful of the entire book.

There are so many examples of the exceptional quality and craftsmanship evident in these books, it was difficult to pick just a few to share!  We are adding more to the Digital Collections page all the time, so keep an eye on that for more of these artists’ works.

Whistler and Duret, Paris and London

Watson Library owns over 35 letters from James Abbott McNeill Whistler to the art critic, collector, and dealer Théodore Duret: 27 items in a red folder inscribed in gold, and ten more in two groups (1 and 2).

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Whistler and Duret were friends from their meeting in 1880 (introduced by Manet) till Whistler’s death in 1903. Duret, collector and admirer of the Impressionists and their circle, supported Whistler through his critical writings and by direct patronage, commissioning the portrait now at The Museum known as Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret (accession number 13.20) in 1883.  He also owned Whistler paintings now in the Art Institute, the Philadelphia Museum, and the Freer Gallery, as well as a badly deteriorated Nocturne in The Met’s collection. Duret was among those who urged the French nation to purchase the more famous Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother for the Musée du Luxembourg (now in the Musée d’Orsay).

Whistler evidently felt close to Duret. In many of the letters in the collection he urges Duret to visit him, mostly in a jocular tone.  “Please come by if you have a moment to spend here,” he says (in French) in a letter of (probably) 1881, “where I am being held prisoner by my brother.” He adds, “Perhaps tomorrow he will let me go out to have a minute in the gallery” (Sheets 10-11).  Much more soberly and in less even handwriting, in a letter of 1900 written in Paris (Sheet 52), he writes, “Dear Duret, Come round here if you can.  I have received news of the death of my brother – the Doctor – It is all very sad – and if not to [sic] impossible for you I should like to see you.  Dont you think we might dine together?”

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In 1882 Whistler sent his portrait of Lady Valerie “Susie” Meux called Arrangement in Black #5 (now in the Honolulu Museum) from London to Paris for the Salon.   In a letter dating from March or April 1882 (Sheets 1517) he asks Duret to visit the painting when it arrives at the Maison Goupil, the dealers, who “have taken all the trouble off my hands,” and see about its condition. Whistler is worried about the varnish and says that if it has “’bloomed’ . . . with a sort of nasty thick blue veil” it should be rubbed with a “soft silk handkerchief” and then re-varnished at the Salon before the opening.  He hopes that Duret likes the painting, which he calls Duret’s “god child,” and also that “Manet will go with you and like the painting.”

The letters give us a peek at the gossip of the art world of the day, as well as evidencing the personal friendship between the two men. In 1883 one of our letters refers to Duret’s sitting for his portrait (as do letters in other collections), and a letter of May 1884 (sheets 2930) thanks Duret for the gift of a book and palette knives, and asks him to say hello to “Miss Cassatt” while commenting, “Oscar [Wilde, of course] is going to be married ! !”

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Other letters show us the quick-tempered side of Whistler’s personality that got him into famous fights, even into the courts.  “Quel ignoble tas de canailles!” he says, “Mais je crois qu’ils ont à faire with the wrong devil this time!” (This one  has a particularly nice example of the famous butterfly signature.)

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Whistler’s complete correspondence, including our letters, is transcribed, translated, annotated, and available online at a site maintained by the University of Glasgow, which does not, however, include images of the documents.

 

Summer G.A. Liesel Vink on her work in the Digital Collections

As a Graduate Assistant this summer, I’ve been working on a number of different projects for the Digitization Team at Thomas J. Watson Library. Being a part of the process has given me insight into the various stages a single digitization project goes through, as well as the many staff members involved in each stage. Since beginning at Watson in May, I have helped scan the J. W. Mayer Papers, created page-level metadata for several Met Museum publications, and renamed folder structures for the Brummer Collection. Each task represented a different part of the digitization workflow but all contributed to the same result: free digitized content made fully available to scholars, researchers and the public alike.

As a Pratt SILS graduate student, familiarizing myself with metadata is crucial to my education, so I went into the opportunity to create page-level metadata for the Met Museum publications with an eagerness to learn as much as possible. One item I created metadata for, the 1939 Guide to the Collections Part I and Part II, consists of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek & Roman, Near Eastern, and Far Eastern artwork, as well as Near Eastern, Indian, and Japanese arms and armor.

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Remarkably, much of what was in this 1939 catalog is still in the permanent collection today. For example, this Bodhisattva sculpture from the 1939 catalog now sits in Gallery 208 (accession number 34.15.1a, b) and is part of the permanent collection to this day.

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Not only was I able to learn about metadata creation, but I was also able to connect with The Museum’s past through the material I was helping to digitize.

The summer semester has quickly come to an end, and though I am reluctant to leave the community at Watson to pursue new opportunities in the field, I feel confident that this experience has helped prepare me for my final two classes at Pratt: Metadata and Projects in Digital Archives.

 

Tour the Digital Collections

Using the free presentation software Prezi, we recently created a “tour” of the Digital Collections.

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The tour consists of a number of different “frames,” each highlighting a different aspect of the Digital Collections.  Currently, we have frames for seven collections in the Digital Collections, one frame for Now at the Met articles related to the Digital Collections, one frame on our collaboration with Wikipedia, and one frame on our Pinterest board. Here is what a frame looks like:

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This frame focuses on the Japanese Illustrated Books collection, and as one proceeds through the tour, each of the main components of the frame is zoomed in upon.  This also allows users to click on the embedded links within the tour and visit the actual Digital Collections itself. Also, because of the flexible nature of Prezi, this digital tour can easily be updated to reflect the constantly evolving nature of the Digital Collections.

There is a link to the tour on the right-hand side of the Highlights page.

The Harry Bober Papers

For more than 50 years, the medieval scholar Harry Bober generated an astounding archival collection which reflects his passion, knowledge, and achievements in the field of medieval art history. In 1991, the papers of Harry Bober were donated to The Metropolitan Museum of Art by his sons, David and Jonathan Bober. The collection was delivered to The Met’s Medieval Department, where it was housed until its transfer to The Cloisters Archive in 1993. The finding aid for the Harry Bober Papers is available in the Digital Collections.

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Harry Bober was NYU’s first Avalon Foundation Chair of the Humanities. He was also a founding member and first secretary (1956-1959) of the International Center for Medieval Art, for which he also helped launch Gesta, an important publication in the field. (Work published in Gesta is cited in dozens of items in the Digital Collections.) Bober was also an avid collector and had a fine collection of medieval art (as well as other genres), some of which was included in The Met’s 1968 show Medieval Art from Private Collections.

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This collection contains correspondence from prominent art historians such as Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich, as well as numerous publications by these important scholars.

The collection is also full of bibliographical and visual materials which can help art historians explore the complex concept of medieval schemata and provide a glimpse into the evolution of medieval art. His interest in the unique concept of medieval schemata dominated the middle years of his career and is taken up in many lectures, manuscripts of written works, and research notes in the collection. Much of the research accumulated by Bober on this topic, including his studies of the medieval pictorial language and the scientific and philosophical culture of the Middle Ages, is included as well. Also, there are photograph files that contain comprehensive collections of manuscripts and sculptural programs which support his theories pertaining to medieval schemata.

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There are also a number of investigation files created by Bober while working as a consultant for various art dealers (primarily H.P. Kraus). His consultant work reveals his remarkable and well-respected abilities as a connoisseur within the art community. The files display his vast erudition and thorough knowledge of a range of periods and artists spanning many different cultures, as well as his keen and critical “eye”.

Bober’s collection holds extensive research material that could be valuable to a wide range of scholarly disciplines. The collection is a beautiful synthesis of bibliographical and visual resources that could serve as the foundation for iconographic studies or studies in the evolution of the medieval style of art.

Extravagant Table Settings

In the eighteenth century, elaborate banquets featuring lavish table settings and complicated codes of social protocol were the focus of court society.  The table settings were extravagant, displaying decorative gold and silver server objects including plates, flatware and serving platters.

A main feature of the dinner ensembles was fanciful napkin folding designs. Complementing The Museum’s 2010 exhibition, Vienna Circa 1780: an Imperial Silver Service Rediscovered, which featured napkin designs, the library purchased several books on napkin folding, including Serviettes and how to Fold Them (Belfast: Robinson & Cleaver, ca.1890,) and Kniffe zum Servietten Kniffen: der Hausfrau gewidmet (Braunschweig: Gebrüder Ring, ca.1900).

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The former catalog, from linen manufacturer Robinson & Cleaver, provides a nineteenth-century take on elegant napkin folding.  As a furnisher of linens to the royal family, Robinson & Cleaver represented excellence in Irish linen and produced everything from damask to lace goods.  Focusing solely on serviettes, this catalog includes diagrams and step-by-step instructions on how to create napkin folding designs such as the “Fan,” “Water Lily,” “Cardinal’s Hat,” “Greek Cross” and “Collegiate.” Below are the instructions for “The Casket Open“:

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The latter guide to napkin folding, Kniffe zum Servietten Kniffen, published by German flatware manufacturer Gebrüder Ring, highlights the company’s patented silver-plated cutlery with eleven spreads pairing different product lines with instructions for and depictions of decorative folded napkins.

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The Library also owns Urbain Dubois’s (1818-1901) Artistic cookery: a practical system for the use of the nobility and gentry and for public entertainments (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1887).  His illustrated guide to gastronomy served as a major resource for festive banquets.

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Dubois was an important figure in French cuisine.  He published eight cook books and served as chef to Prince Orloff of Russia and joint chef to Emperor Wilhelm of Prussia.  Artistic Cookery contains eighty copper-engraved plates illustrating three hundred and thirty-seven examples of meat, fish, and dessert dishes presented on elaborate serving pieces or stands, as well as sample menus and preparation instructions for both food dishes and their decorative serving platters that accompany the illustrations.

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Written by Holly Phillips and Diane De Fazio