Buy The Case, Return The Pearl

Mai Du Huan Zhu is a famous story in China. A man from the State of Chu went to the State of Zheng to sell his pearl. He had made a case for the pearl with fine-grained magnolia wood, fumigated it with incense, mounted it with white jade, adorned it with rose-colored stone and sewed green jadeite onto its fringes. The craftsmanship was so exquisite that a Zheng buyer took the case but returned the pearl to the seller. The saying “buy the case, return the pearl” is used to instruct not to be misguided by how objects are represented. But who could blame the buyer if the case itself is a work of art?

Carrig Rohane/ Herman Dudley Murphy Frame (From
Carrig Rohane/ Herman Dudley Murphy Frame (From

Two years ago, when I was in the Butler Museum of American Art at Youngstown, OH, I was surprised by a special exhibition, not dedicated to any painting but to the frames. In the exhibition “The Secret Lives of Frames”, I read the saying of Thomas Cole: The frame is the soul of the painting. Geo and I laughed at the idea because if so MoMA would be a high-end storage place of paintings without a soul.

But soon I began to realize the importance of the frame through the experience of framing my own works. An inappropriate frame can kill a painting. Gilding can be warm or cold, smooth or rusty, and all have an effect on the light and color of the painting perceived by the viewers. Brice Brown, in an article in the New York Sun, commented that “the Hudson River School artists intentionally mounted their work in gilt frames with a type of fluting capable of capturing light in a way complementary to the glowing pink light emanating from their own canvases.”

Last year, at the exhibition “Road to Impressionism” at the Newark Museum, though Hermann Dudley Murphy‘s own works were not shown, frames from his workshop decorated a few tonalism paintings by his fellow painters such as Dwight William Tryon and Bruce Crane. It was an enlightening experience. Tonalism, which began to take the stage slightly before impressionism in America, is more retrospective than inventive, thus I had been used to associating such paintings with more traditional Barbizon-looking frames which tend to be gilded in dark or antique gold color with highly decorative ornament motif at the corners and the center.

Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks By James Abbott McNeill Whistler From Philadelphia Museum of Art
Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks By James Abbott McNeill Whistler From the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The arts and Crafts movement found its voice and cast its influence in tonalism paintings because both were truly American. The tonalism’s vague, indistinct and suggestive mood was the response of American artists to the superiority, nativity and innocence of Antebellum artworks exemplified in Hudson River School. For painters like Bruce Crane or Dwight William Tryon, American nature was not innocent nor divine. But the finer quality of nature can only be understood through sympathetic eyes. Thus beauty is not given but can be obtained through an intimate experience. The emphasis on personal feelings, genteel yet nuanced, makes the marriage between old-fashioned French Barbizon frames and American tonalism painting spiritually incongruent. The frames made by Hermann Dudley Murphy, more rustic and burnished, demonstrated the right balance between the societal sophistication necessary for the high art in elite circles and the yearning toward a simpler and modern form in the Gilded Age. They also carry both a distinguished American straight-forwardness and a unique personal style; thus adding another humane touch to the appreciation of those paintings.

The “case” was seen again last week in the current exhibition “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989″ at the Guggenheim Museum of New York, although this time the pearl is also extraordinary. “Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler is shown as one of the exemplary works of Whistler’s Asian pastiche period. The ceramics and the robe worn by the women are typical late Qing dynasty objects. Lange Leizen, a Dutch phrase that Whistler translates as “Long Elizas,” refers to such porcelain ware decorated with elongated figures. But what amazed me the most is the frame, into which he carved the potter’s marks in order to enhance the exoticism of the subject. The six marks are in fact six Chinese letters that read “Made In Kangxi Period”, a typical way to date the products in ancient times.

Whistler must have a similar jar in his own collection because it would be impossible to carve Chinese without a solid linguistic background. The six words are beautifully carved, yet the somewhat disproportioned parts within each Chinese letter indicate Whistler’s fascination with Asian-style patterns, shapes, fabrics and decorum rules, at that time, was more or less on the surface (pastiche) level.

Geo commented that the woman resting in ease is terribly inappropriately dressed for the task of painting the vase and apparently the red paint she is using on the table, though adding a touch of contrast, would probably never be used.

I laughed. Whistler was almost there. The spareness and delicacy  in the painting are Asian, but he forgot something fundamental and made an anarchronisic mistake: Kangxi emperor reigned China almost 200 years before Whistler’s own time.

PS: In May 2005, a  frame carved by  Carrig Rohane with Herman Dudley Murphy monogram was sold at Concept Gallery for $2700 (hammer price), as shown in the first picture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s