DMA Insight

The John R. Young Collection

John Young, a Dallas businessman, began in the 1970s to amass a remarkable collection of Japanese decorative arts from the Meiji period (1868-1912). Originally Mr. Young had been interested in classical Chinese art, but realizing he could hardly do something major in this area, he and his wife, Frances, concentrated on the then little-known area of Meiji metalwork, cloisonné, and lacquerware. This fascinating art reflects the opening up of Japan to the West and a fruitful interplay between traditional Japanese art techniques and European taste.

While this material was dismissed as "late" or "kitsch" when John Young was collecting it, his instincts proved sound. The collection toured the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, and other museums in Europe and New York between 1991 and 1992. The exhibition catalog, written by Dr. Oliver Impey of the Ashmolean and Malcolm Fairley, a specialist in Meiji art based in London, supplied a scholarly analysis of the pieces and put The John R. Young Collection on the map.

Mary Tredegar, Keeper at the Ashmolean, said, "Our thanks are due first of all to the collector John R. Young, a pioneer collector in this field. Mr. Young was collecting at a time when to like these works was to be considered eccentric, to be lacking in taste. He always selected for reasons of quality. Time has justified his choice." Indeed, Japanese collectors now vie for these increasingly rare pieces.

Dr. Emily Sano, then Deputy Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, staged three small exhibits of the Young Collection and pursued the possibility of this rich material coming to Dallas. In 1993 a large part of the collection was purchased by the Foundation for the Arts for the Museum. Other works were later given by Mr. Young or purchased from him to round out the Museum's holdings. In 2003 a final selection of masterpieces from his remaining collection were purchased by the Foundation for the Arts and the Museum, an acquisition that would complete the richest collection of Meiji decorative arts in the Western world.

The most striking piece from John Young features three large bronze figures that reflect the complex interchange between late 19th century Japanese art and European fin-de-siècle taste. Takenouchi no Sukune Meets the Dragon King of the Sea, a massive bronze work, depicts Ryujin, the Dragon King of the Sea, and a fabulous sea monster presenting the orb of the Jewel of Tides to a Japanese warrior-hero. Every detail of the warrior's costume and the sea monster's spiny guise is lovingly displayed. This very theatrical piece sums up the exchange of East and West.

Traditional Japanese ornamental metalwork centered on sword-making for a feudal, warrior society. Techniques once used to decorate swords were later used to create very different kinds of works, like the Dragon King of the Sea, made for European markets. Many Japanese craftsmen during the Meiji period displayed their glittering wares at European international exhibits, thereby creating a market for themselves and influencing European artists in turn. The elaborate bronze chargers in the Young Collection are other examples of this mixture.

Cloisonné enamel work, a technique admired in Europe for centuries, was a 19th-century addition to the Japanese repertoire. These inlaid objects consist of small cells formed from wire laid on a metal base and filled with colored crushed glass. When heated, the glass fuses to the metal to form elaborate brilliantly colored surface patterns. Enamel vases decorated with dragons and flowers are highlights of the Young Collection.

In plique-à-jour enamels, the metal form of a vase is removed after firing, leaving only an enamel-and-wire translucent shape. This technique is a later development in decorative enamel work. Plique-à-jour lamps and vases are light as air and create a magical effect.

Developed in Japan as late as the 1860s, Shibayama inlay involves inlaying lacquer pieces with pearl-shell, ivory, coral, horn, or tortoiseshell. The Young Collection included striking examples of this exotic technique, such as lacquer boxes inlaid with pastoral scenes that resemble Japanese wall paintings in both style and effect.

While these highly decorative works often employ foreign techniques, wedded to centuries of Japanese craftsmanship, aesthetically the art is very Japanese. Cranes, pine trees, iris flowers, chrysanthemums, dragons, singing birds, clouds over mountain peaks, women in floating robes, festoons of wisteria, male warriors, laughing children, and scenes symbolic of the four seasons all echo the age-old repertory of Japanese imagery, where man and nature exist in harmony.

Excerpt from

Anne Bromberg, "The John R. Young Collection" in Dallas Museum of Art: Celebrating 100 Years, 1903-2003, ed. John R. Lane et al. (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 73.

Related Multimedia

Wendy & Emery Reves Lecture Series; DMA Collection; speaker is Deputy Director of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco and former Deputy Director and curator at the DMA