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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Japanese Silk Panels at the Decatur House

Inside the Decatur House’s California Room hangs a series of remarkable nineteenth-century Japanese silk panels that depict the changing seasons. The paintings, created by Japanese artist Utagawa Kunitsuru, were signed by the artist in 1872. They came to Decatur House sometime between this signing date and their first mention in a Washington Capital newspaper article in late 1873, which noted that the upstairs drawing room boasted “French gray side walls with Japanese paneling and borders.”1 The panels are currently hung in the kakemono-style, though originally displayed in the Decatur House as a wallpaper.2 Each silk panel was glued and nailed to the wall and then framed with a printed decorative wallpaper border, which still exists on the walls today. Prior to their application to the wall, the panels were likely made to be hanging scrolls.

Edward Fitzgerald Beale likely acquired the panels while working in California. He purchased the Decatur House in 1871 and lived there until his death in 1893. The Decatur House stayed in the Beale family until Marie Oge Beale donated the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1956.

Naval History and Heritage Command

As artwork, Utagawa Kunitsuru’s paintings provide a beautiful example of the Japanese artistic tradition. The six panels represent the seasons. The first figural panel depicts a woman in an early spring setting, surrounded by a plum tree with an open umbrella as either snow or blossom leaves fall; the plumb symbolizing daring character. The second depicts a man standing, carrying a sword, presumably a samurai. The third panel, one of the two landscape scenes, shows a pair of cranes under a Cherry Blossom, or sakura, tree, indicating fidelity or strong bonds. The fourth panel shows a woman with a shamisen stringed instrument, surrounded by another blossoming tree, in front of what may be a building. The fifth panel depicts a winter scene as a hunched over woman marches through a snowstorm. This panel contains the artist’s signature and date. Finally, the sixth panel, and second landscape scene, shows what may be a pheasant or rooster in a blossoming tree. There is no definitive understanding of the series’ intended hanging order and each season is not equally represented. It is possible that these six could have been from a larger set of twelve, each depicting the twelve months of the lunar calendar year, rather than just the seasons.

Edward Fitzgerald Beale, who purchased Decatur House in 1871, likely acquired Kunitsuru’s series while living and working in California. At the time, California was the country’s primary port for Asian trade due to its strategic location on the Pacific Ocean. Japanese-American trade gained prominence after two major political events in the mid-nineteenth century; in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry coerced the Japanese into signing a treaty that permitted trade with the United States, and in 1868, the Japanese Meiji Restoration led to countrywide modernization and industrialization, strengthening Japan’s role in global trade markets and increasing the export of commodities to America.3 Beale was well-traveled in the American West, having served as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and Nevada under President Millard Fillmore and Surveyor General of California under President Abraham Lincoln. Through these positions, he likely made commercial and personal connections with local merchants and foreign traders in California that would have allowed for purchases like the Japanese silk panels that now hang in the Decatur House.4

Here, the panels hang in their current location and style in the Decatur House's California Room.

White House Historical Association

For many years, it was believed that President Ulysses S. Grant brought the panels back from his 1877-1879 world tour and gifted them to Beale—however, the Washington Capital’s reference to the panels in 1873 makes this theory impossible.5 Another possibility was that the Grants gave the panels to the Beales as a generous housewarming gift in 1873. Edward Beale’s daughter-in-law, Marie Oge Beale, was the last private owner of the property and the author of Decatur House and Its Inhabitants, published in 1954. While she frequently references the friendship between her father-in-law Edward Beale and President Grant in great detail, she neglects to discuss the panels or how they came into the family’s possession.6 No matter their provenance, President Grant would have been familiar with the series, as he frequently visited and dined at the Decatur House during his tenure in Washington, D.C.7

The paintings are not only aesthetically beautiful, but also evidence of the historical period in which they were created. As Japan opened to the West in the mid-nineteenth century, Japanese art became highly desirable for affluent American art collectors. In particular, Japanese decorative arts, “exotic” to American audiences while also reflective of the popular Aesthetic Movement of the period, led to a so-called “Japan craze” in the Western art world.8 Collectors hoped to exhibit their wealth and worldliness by acquiring art and décor representative of different cultures. As American demand increased, so did Japanese exports of fans, screens, silk prints, and other decorative arts objects. In fact, conservator Yoshi Nishio, who participated in the conservation of the Decatur House panels in 2013, conjectured that “the paintings might have been created by Kunitsuru for the tourist trade…I don’t want to make it sound cheap, but these might be catered to Westerners… [the panels] were too large for domestic taste in Japan.”9 As a result, Utagawa Kunitsuru’s Japanese silk paintings simultaneously reflect the cultural and political atmosphere of the United States during Edward Fitzgerald Beale’s residence in the Decatur House.