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: The Alfred F. Pillsbury Bequest


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The cultural heritage of our community has recently been enriched by the gift of the outstanding art collection of Alfred Fiske Pillsbury to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. One of the most important bequests ever made to the Institute, these collections, consisting of more than one thousand objects, establish Minneapolis as one of the world centers for the study of the arts of the East.The addition of such rich collections to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is of tremendous significance. But for Mr. Pillsbury's many friends and for the members of the Society of Fine Arts, the Institute's good fortune will be overcast by sorrow for the passing of one who so willingly and faithfully served the Society of Fine Arts over a period of thirty years, first as Treasurer, then as President, and finally as Chairman of the Board of Trustees. His collections will stand as an enduring memorial, but his wise counsel and his daily visits to the Institute will be missed.Mr. Pillsbury's bequest is an affirmation of good citizenship which will come as no surprise to those who knew his interest in the arts and his love of our community. He was well known as a leader in the civic, business, cultural and religious life of Minneapolis. His many years of service to the city as a member of the Park Board, as well as his enlightened interest in and contribution to the growth of the Art Institute, have long been known.The wide extent of his activities as a collector is not so well known. Many may have enjoyed their visits to the Oriental galleries at the Institute without fully realizing that the larger part of the Oriental collections exhibited there were generously lent by Mr. Pillsbury. In recent years, the ancient Chinese bronzes have become world-famous, while his collections in other fields of Oriental and Near Eastern art have been constantly on demand as loans for special exhibitions in museums throughout the country. Guided by an extraordinary eye for form and color, and, on the whole, less interested in scholarly and archaeological considerations, Mr. Pillsbury assembled collections that reflect his instinctive and discriminating taste.To remind our members of the scope of the Pillsbury collections and Mr. Pillsbury's activities as a collector, it seems appropriate at this time to reprint, in part, an article written by Mrs. Edward H. Sirich on the occasion of Mr. Pillsbury's appointment to the office of Chairman of the Board of Trustees."No one is more modest in the role of collector than Mr. Pillsbury. In assembling the archaic jades, the Wei and T'ang tomb figurines and T'ang pottery, the monochrome porcelains, the Persian pottery, the Khmer Buddhist sculpture, and finally the great Chinese ritual bronzes, he has given himself up to a pleasure that is in no sense purely selfish since a great part of his enjoyment has come from sharing the fruits of his collecting with others. His generous long-term loans to the Art Institute have made these beautiful-and, in this region, rarely encountered-objects available to all that care to look at them. In a way, also, they make Mr. Pillsbury the friend of everyone who knows his treasures because they reflect to an unusual degree the personality of the man who assembled them. It is no accident that they are of uniformly high quality; that they are subtle and understated; that they reveal a profound feeling for form and color; and that they are spiced by a sly humor that is the more effective for its infrequent intrusion. In assembling his own collections Mr. Pillsbury has given free reign to his personal tastes; a liberty he never permitted himself as President of the Society of Fine Arts. In doing so he has shown himself to be possessed of the qualities he admires so much in the works he has collected; qualities which, strangely enough, are to be found almost exclusively in the arts of the East: economy of expression, an intense awareness of form, and a something beneath the surface which lures the beholder to special, happy discoveries."Mr. Pillsbury's interest in oriental art began with a trip to the Orient following the first World War. He admits that he was captivated by the strange beauty of the things he saw there, and it is a tribute to his discrimination that the first objects he began seriously to collect were early Chinese jades. He started with jades of the Han period, but soon put these aside for the pendants and ornaments of Chou and, later, the austere symbol of rank, discs, weapons, and the enchanting animals of Shang. To the average eye these make no quick appeal. The lovely pale ivory of a chicken-bone jade dagger; the rare mottled blue of a sceptre; the watery, blue-flecked green of a symbol of rank, or the mat white of a graceful belt hook, are outside the experience of many Westerners in the field of jade. But they ripen with acquaintance, bringing new and unexpected pleasure. Added to the charm of color are those of form and texture, so that in the end the constant observer discovers in himself a small, fierce mania for these curious and beautiful objects. There are some three hundred of them in the collection which Mr. Pillsbury was building in the twenty years from 1918 to 1938."During this time, beginning about 1925 and ending in 1932, Mr. Pillsbury assembled three other collections: the T'ang potteries and Wei and T'ang tomb figurines, the Chinese monochrome porcelains, and the Persian potteries. The T'ang potteries include fine examples of glazed ware in a variety of forms: bowls in soft blue and white, a pale green iridescent bottle, a standing hound, head lifted, with a deep blue glaze, and a typical T'ang ewer with a blue and yellow glaze."The Wei and T'ang tomb potteries represent a more casual art, models made in large numbers for use in tombs and thus of more summary execution. Nevertheless, the camels, horses, animal figures representing sign of the zodiac, oxen, birds, court ladies, musicians, dancing girls, wrestlers, and guards have a special charm. These figurines, whose informal treatment results in an impressionistic rendering of form lacking in more sophisticated arts, were placed in tombs to accompany the deceased on his journey to the other world. They are almost always unglazed but frequently show traces of pigment: red, blue, green. Among the most engaging in Mr. Pillsbury's collection are a diminutive pair of wrestlers of the Wei period whose comic antics bring a smile to the most dour face, and a T'ang princess accompanied by a musician and a dancing girl who bows with reverent grace."The monochrome porcelains of the K'ang His, Yung Chêng, and Ch'ien Lung period illustrate quite another, and very brilliant, achievement of Chinese ceramic art. This collection of some sixty pieces is notable for the two qualities Mr. Pillsbury admires above all others: form and color. Assembling it must have afforded him, as it affords all observers, a sensuous pleasure that is equaled, in his collections, only by the archaic jades. Among the most beautiful pieces are a peachbloom amphora, and imperial yellow gallipot, and apple green bottle, and a clair de lune amphora."The Persian potteries, also including about sixty pieces, introduce a different and beguiling note into the Pillsbury collections. Although it is not a large group it includes examples of almost all the well-known types: lustre painted ware from Rayy; under and over-glaze painted bowls from Rayy and Sava; an incised white-glaze bowl of the tenth century; black and blue painted bowls and plates from Kashan; a pale turquoise bowl decorated in gold relief, and many others. Like most Persian works of art, these potteries illustrate the meticulous fashion in which the potter suited the character and spirit of his design to his material. He never demanded more of the substance than it could give. Thus there it is, in these bowls and plates and ewers, a happy marriage of design to material that enhances the medium, no matter how humble. The Persian potteries are pure delight-gay but restrained, cool and self-contained."The Khmer and Siamese sculptures, about fifteen large and twenty small pieces, which captured Mr. Pillsbury's interest about 1932, represent his only incursion into the field of pure sculpture. The remote, contemplative quality of these bronze and sandstone figures from Cambodia and Siam exercised a strong appeal for him; so strong, in fact, that two seated Buddhas and one head of a Bodhisattva are the only pieces of his large collection that he has kept in his home. They, too, are objects that are strange and sometimes forbidding to the western eye, but the observer who responds to them will often find them rewarding beyond all other works of art."Perhaps the transition from Khmer sculpture to the enigmatic bronze ritual vessels of China was the natural last step for Mr. Pillsbury to take in the course of his years of collecting. Certainly it has been the most satisfying to him and one which has revealed to the highest degree his taste and discrimination. The monumental conception, the miraculously controlled power, the mastery of design, and the flawless workmanship of these vessels represent the ultimate in Chinese art. In bringing them to Minneapolis; in sharing them at the Art Institute with visitors from all over the world, Mr. Pillsbury has bestowed the ultimate favor in his long and fruitful career as a collector."The Pillsbury collections are now in the safekeeping of the Art Institute, where they will be enjoyed by many coming generations. The possession of such a treasure places an obligation upon the community. Perhaps the best expression of our gratitude will be the humble study and ultimately the full appreciation of these magnificent examples of the arts of the East.A portion of the Pillsbury collections is presently on display at the Institute in the galleries on the top floor of the South wing. A comprehensive memorial exhibition is planned for the fall of 1950.Referenced Works of ArtCover. Alfred F. Pillsbury. Detail from a portrait by Frances Cranmer Greenman, painted in 1936
  1. Bronze Tiger. Chinese, Middle Chou
  2. Bronze Horses. Chinese, Shang
  3. Bronze Vase Support. Chinese, Late Chou
  4. Pottery Bowl. Persian, Rayy, XIII century
  5. Buster Ewer. Persian, Rayy, XIII century
  6. Pottery Bowl. Persian, Rayy, XIII century
  7. Bronze Seated Buddha. Khmer, XII century
  8. Ornaments. Persian, X-I centuries, B.C.
  9. Head of Boddhisattva. Khmer, XII century
  10. Bronze Ritual Vessel. Chinese, Late Chou
  11. Bronze Ritual Vessel. Chinese, Shang
  12. Bronze Ritual Basin. Chinese, Late Chou
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Source: "The Alfred F. Pillsbury Bequest," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 39, no. 18 (May, 1950): 86-91.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009