Long before Westerners could distinguish yellowfin tuna from eel sushi or drive Toyotas, they knew precious little about Japan. In 1881, when the hearing impaired American Harry Humphrey Moore (1844-1926) arrived in Tokyo with his paints and sketchbooks, he was among the first Western artists in centuries to see the prevailing culture of teahouses, gardens, kimono-clad women, and domestic scenes that might include children playing with pet tortoises.
Anne Cohen DePietro, the director of American paintings at Doyle New York, who is bringing four diminutive works by Moore to sale this February, likens the effects of Moore’s trip to those of a trip by an earlier American painter. “When Thomas Cole went up the Hudson to draw, he was so inspired by a pristine wilderness that he had what might be called a ‘sublime experience’,” she says. “I think Moore was having a ‘sublime experience’ as one of the first American painters to come in and document a still-pristine culture. He was seeing a world that had been quite insulated. Wouldn’t you, wouldn’t anyone, be excited, too?” She adds that Moore appears to have cherished his Japanese scenes: “He hung them close together and covered them with a drape. For special guests, he would proudly draw it back so that visitors could enjoy them.”
Despite praise from the likes of Thomas Eakins, who commented that his friend was “one of the greatest artists of his day,” and Sargent, who remarked that he had never seen “such exquisite technique as that which distinguished Moore’s work,” Moore has remained largely unknown. “That’s very simply because, after he died in 1926, his wife retained everything in her Paris home,” says DePietro, “and it’s why we have a low estimated value for these works.”
It wasn’t until 1950 that a private collector acquired many of Moore’s extant canvases and panels from the estate of his widow. DePietro relates, too, a dramatic tale of how that woman, Maria (a member of the Polish aristocracy), hid her late husband’s oeuvre beneath piles of ash and trash after Nazis demanded that she hand over the works. Few people saw Moore’s works during his lifetime, especially his cache of some 60 Japanese scenes, apart from attendees to the Berlin International Art Exhibition in 1891 and, in 1919, a show at New York’s Union League Club, regarding which a New York Times review cited the artist’s “amazingly accurate technique and wonderful local color effects.” Even then, the Times pointed out that the scenes Moore depicted were “fast disappearing in Japan, never to return. For this reason, this collection will ever rise in value as a part of the History of Japan and as a memento of the past that is simply inestimable.”
DePietro seems to be having her own sublime experience with the quartet of scenes at Doyle this February (Lot 26, Lot 27, Lot 28, Lot 29). “In each, there’s a brightness, spontaneity, and vibrancy of color,” she explains, “a wonderful fluidity and confidence. They have such freshness that it would not be inconceivable for Moore to have done them on the spot. He painted something that no one had painted before.”
This interview originally appeared in ‘Fine Art Connoisseur’ magazine, Feb. 2016, vol. 13, no. 1. We gratefully acknowledge David Masello and Peter Trippi for their kind permission to reprint this interview.