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Obsession: Sir William Van Horne's Japanese Ceramics

Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics

Sat Oct 20 to Jan 22, All Day

The second half of the 19th century was a golden age of collecting in Europe and North America. The epicenter in Canada was Montreal, then the country’s economic powerhouse. In a period of colonial expansion, its business leaders collected and displayed European and Asian art to convey their emerging power and status.

Sir William Van Horne (1843-1915), the American-born builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, was one such collector. While the public rooms of his Montreal mansion included masterpieces by Rembrandt, Turner, and others, he confessed to loving the Japanese ceramics in his private study most of all.

The opening of Japan after 1854 sparked a fashion in the West for collecting Japanese objets d’art including ceramics. Some scholars and dealers soon became fascinated by the bowls, jars, and vases made for domestic use rather than export, seeing them as more authentic. Van Horne became passionate about these modest pots, assembling a collection of over 1,200 examples.

This exhibition reunites for the first time what survives of Van Horne’s collection, alongside his exacting watercolors, elaborately annotated notebooks, letters, and related archival material. Together, these artifacts offer a remarkable case study in the history of collecting in late-19th century Montreal, highlighting Van Horne’s place in an international network of connoisseurs and the imperialist impulses behind his taxonomic acquisitiveness. Above all, they reveal the little-known obsession of one of the greatest collectors in Canadian history.

Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics is organized by the Gardiner Museum in partnership with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, with objects generously provided by the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Header image: Tea bowl with design of baton Kyoto, Edo-Meiji period, 19 c. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1944.Ee.6, Adaline Van Horne Bequest