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Sometime in the mid-20th century, one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s most ornate galleries disappeared. The Jade Room displayed art and artifacts of Chinese jade, collected and donated by Heber R. Bishop, in elaborate glass cases, surrounded by chandeliers and arched windows in a reproduction of a Louis XV ballroom. A Passion for Jade: The Heber Bishop Collection, now at the Met, showcases many of the carved objects once on view in that vanished space, while celebrating the contributions of Bishop to the museum’s Asian art department.
“His is an example of one of the earliest collections of Chinese jade, not only in this museum, but probably the United States,” Jason Sun, curator of Chinese art in the Met’s Department of Asian Art, told Hyperallergic. “He was the first one who was interested in Chinese jade when most collectors were pretty much interested in porcelain.”
Few biographical details explain why the industrialist Bishop decided to focus on jade when his contemporaries cared only for Chinese decorative arts. However, Sun read in an article about Bishop’s collecting that the first piece he acquired was a dark green Chinese brush holder, decorated with landscapes and purchased at Tiffany’s.
“Later on he learned that jade was a very hard material that you could not easily carve; it can only be shaped by grating and grinding,” Sun said. “It was a very laborious process, so he was extremely attracted to this.”
A Passion for Jade is a small and subdued exhibition. In its orderly display of around 100 jade objects, many not ordinarily on view, it reveals the diversity of the stone and the art of its carving. Examples date back to the Han Dynasty (3rd century CE), although most come from the last 300 years of Chinese imperialism. Bishop focused on China but also collected jade from around the world, including prehistoric tools from Europe, Mesoamerican artifacts, and Maori objects from New Zealand. He was obsessed with getting a complete view of the material, from its scientific properties to its artistic potential, amassing jade tools and between 200 and 300 jade pebbles in all the stone’s varieties. (In fact, his interests were so diverse and his travels so broad, you can find another of his donations on prominent view in a completely different institution: the carved Haida canoe hanging in the Grand Gallery of the American Museum of Natural History.)
This year, the Met’s Department of Asian Art marked its centennial, which Bishop’s donation of around 1,000 jade objects in 1902 predates. He died that same year, never seeing his jade go on view in a gallery that, Sun said, was likely based on how he displayed the works in his own home. One of the last printed mentions of the florid Jade Room is in a 1945 issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society. Sun doesn’t know exactly when the gallery was disassembled, but said he “would assume it was at a time that the museum was trying to expand.”
The Met has expanded its architectural footprint numerous times since the 1870s, adding wings, dividing galleries, and incorporating old architecture into its present form. Look up in the Medieval Sculpture Hall and you can still see some of the 1880 Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould building in its grand ceiling. Walk below the Grand Staircase, where the old bricks of the 1902 Richard Morris Hunt entrance pavilion now arch over the galleries for Byzantine art. The Jade Room, with its gaudy aesthetics, may have disappeared from the museum map, yet it’s still embedded in the institution thanks to Bishop’s appreciation for a medium other collectors disregarded. As Sun said: “What Bishop actually did for the museum is he broadened people’s horizons about Chinese art.”
A Passion for Jade: The Heber Bishop Collection continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 19, 2016.