Orientalist is an anachronistic term these days, but a century and more ago it was an occupational identity and inclination which was much in vogue. Today is the birthday of one of America’s most respected Orientalists, Salem native Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), scholar, educator, curator, collector and passionate advocate of East Asian art and literature. After completing his education in Salem and at Harvard, Fenollosa arrived in Japan in 1878 to teach western philosophy at Tokyo Imperial University and quickly became immersed in what became his life’s work: the preservation and dissemination of eastern culture.
The world in which Fenollosa lived was one shaped by western imperialism but also by cross-cultural interaction. Most of Fenollosa’s biographers (of which there is a long list; I liked Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan for general context) emphasize his own “diverse” family (Spanish musician father, old Salem shipping family mother) and the fact that he grew up in a city shaped by the profits and products of the China trade. His personal story seems to represent two post-1870 trends very well: an increasing American fascination with all things Asian in general and Japanese in particular following the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and the influx of “foreign advisors” into Japan as part of the Meiji government’s twin policies of westernization and modernization. Fenollosa attended the Centennial Exposition and was apparently impressed with the Japanese exhibits, which showcased traditional craftsmanship in glaring contrast to American industrial production. He and his new wife, Lizzie Goodhue Millett (descended from two old Salem families) Fenollosa, left for Japan 18 months later.
Japan was in the midst of dynamic change when the Fenollosas arrived. The long reign of the Meiji (“enlightened”) Emperor Mitsuhito (pictured with his family, below, dressed in a mix of western and traditional clothing) was characterized by rapid industrialization and the material culture on display in Philadelphia appeared to be in danger of disappearing. It was full speed ahead into the twentieth century. More than anyone, the prolific printmaker Kobayashi Kiyochika captured the contrast of traditional and modern Japan in the Meiji era; below is a print of a Tokyo journalist covering a regional rebellion in 1877.
Fenollosa fulfilled his teaching responsibilities but put most of his energy into travelling around Japan (with his colleague and translator Okakura Tenshin, to which the Tenshin Memorial Museum of Art is entirely devoted) visiting ancient shrines and temples in Nara and Kyoto and “discovering”, cataloguing and collecting traditional art. His avocation became official with his appointment to the Ministry of Education and his efforts ultimately led to the foundation of the Tokyo Fine Arts School in 1887. Two other life-changing events occurred during this time: Fenollosa converted to Buddhism and sold his large personal collection of Japanese art to the Boston physician Charles Goddard Weld, with the condition attached that he donate it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Weld did so, and in 1890 Fenollosa and his family returned to Massachusetts upon his appointment as the Museum’s first curator of Oriental art.
Fenollosa remained at the Museum of Fine Arts for six years, after which he left for personal and professional reasons. There was a somewhat scandalous divorce and quick remarriage to southern author Mary McNeill Scott (with whom he worked at the museum), but he was also clearly interested in a more wide-ranging and public scholarly life: he lectured frequently and began writing on such diverse topics as art education and Japanese theater and poetry. The turn-of-the-century Orientalist was a geographical specialist, but apparently not a disciplinary one.
Fenollosa was revered in his lifetime, and after. His most visible legacy is the large collection of traditional Japanese paintings in the Museum of Fine Art’s “Fenollosa-Weld Collection”, as well as smaller collections in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Brenda Fenollosa, born in Japan, married into the prominent Philadelphia Biddle Family and donated her paintings to the Museum in her father’s memory), and the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian. Probably he is best seen as a cross-cultural translator and educator; indeed this is the role that was recognized by the Meiji Emperor himself when he inducted Fenollosa into the imperial Order of the Sacred Treasure on the eve of his departure for Boston with the directive (paraphrased by his widow in her preface to Fenollosa’s posthumously-published Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art: an Outline of East Asiatic Design): “You have taught my people to know their own art; in going back to your own great country, I charge you, teach them also.” Here in Salem, the most recent, and public, tribute to Fenollosa comes in the form of the custom house plaque commissioned by the present owners of his childhood house.
Photography credits and copyrights: Ernest Fenollosa circa 1890 (Tenshin Memorial Museum of Art); Images of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition 1876 (Library of Congress Digital Collections); The Imperial Family (Library of Congress Digital Collections); Kobayashi Kiyochika print, 1877 (British Museum Collections); the “Boston Orientalists”, 1882 (Kevin Nute, “Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese Art: Fenollosa: the Missing Link”, Architectural History 34 (1991)); The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, circa 1895 (Library of Congress Digital Collections).