chigusa tea jar

chigusa tea jarExhibition recreates world of 16th-century Japanese ‘art of tea’

PRINCETON, N.J.—Crafted in southern China nearly 700 years ago, a simple ceramic vessel gained special renown after arriving in Japan, where it became a celebrated collectible and achieved a cult-like status with a personal name—Chigusa. Generations of Japanese tea connoisseurs praised its attributes in their diaries and devoted time to adorning it with accessories. Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan introduces U.S. museum audiences to Chigusa, seeks to understand how a simple vessel can become so famous and in doing so illuminates Japanese tea practice over the centuries.


       Co-curated by Andrew M. Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University, and Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, the exhibition will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from Oct. 11, 2014, through Feb. 1, 2015, the exhibition’s second and final venue.


       Once the exhibition has concluded, Chigusa will permanently enter the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art and will never again travel.

       “The trajectory of this simple object and its rise to celebrity status in Japan makes Chigusa a fascinating object and an exhilarating story,” said Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward. “We are pleased to present such a unique narrative, in a way that we will never see again.”

       Chigusa originated as one of countless utilitarian ceramics in China during the 13th or 14th century and was shipped to Japan as a common container for commercial goods. Once in Japan, however, it was deemed an aesthetic exemplar of a tea-leaf storage jar and became highly desirable. The rare bestowing of a personal name—Chigusa (“thousand grasses” or “myriad things”), an evocative phrase from Japanese court poetry—was a sign of reverence. Coinciding with its rise to fame, the art of tea evolved into a major aesthetic and cultural pastime in Japan during the 16th century. Circles of influential tea practitioners accorded special attention to favored objects through naming, decoration and close observation.

       Chigusa’s name, which distinguishes it from all other tea jars, enables scholars to trace its documentation across the centuries and its status as an unrivaled object within the Japanese tea tradition. The remarkable documentation and artifacts that surround Chigusa—including inscriptions, letters, textile accessories and storage boxes—narrate a fascinating history of ownership and enjoyment. Few jars with comparable documentation survive in Japan or elsewhere. Marks on the jar’s base are thought to be the signatures of its proud owners and admirers, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Chigusa was held in Japanese private collections until it was acquired by the Freer and Sackler Galleries at auction in 2009.

       For display in the tea room, Chigusa was outfitted with luxury accessories bestowed on it by successive owners across the centuries: a mouth covering of antique Chinese gold-brocaded silk, a net bag of blue silk and a set of blue silk cords used to tie ornamental knots to the four lugs on the jar’s shoulder. A video in the exhibition follows the elaborate process of a tea master dressing Chigusa.

       In addition to Chigusa, the exhibition features objects that help contextualize Chigusa’s fame and its place in Japanese tea traditions, including a Chinese painting remade in Japan for chanoyu, the Japanese practice of tea; a remarkable portrait of the tea master Sen no Rikyu; and Chinese, Cambodian and Japanese ceramics that were used and enjoyed over the centuries within the context of Japanese tea culture. In order to create the intimate feel of a Japanese tea gathering, the exhibition includes an abstracted tea room and a full complement of tea utensils from the private collection of Peggy and Richard M. Danziger.

       Representing a major contribution to the study of Japanese aesthetics, history and material culture, the accompanying 288-page illustrated book follows Chigusa’s 700-year history as it explores how chanoyu in Japan evolved to focus on the use and meaning of ritual objects. Co-edited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky, Chigusa and the Art of Tea is published by the Freer and Sackler Galleries and distributed by the University of Washington Press.

       The related symposium, “Contextualizing Chigusa: The Arts in and around Tea in Sixteenth-century Japan,” will gather major international scholars to present original research on areas of Japanese art that intersect with the world of Chigusa, including painting, calligraphy, ceramics and textiles. To be held at Princeton University Nov. 7–8,  the symposium is jointly organized by the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art and the Department of Art and Archaeology.

       Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan is organized by the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with major funding from Toshiba International Foundation—25 years of supporting the arts. Generous support is also provided by Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas); Dr. Sachiko Kuno and Dr. Ryuji Ueno; Jay and Toshiko Tompkins; anonymous; the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation; and the Friends of the Freer|Sackler. Additional support for the exhibition publication is provided by the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University. The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by generous support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; and the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund, with additional support from the Department of Art and Archaeology and the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art, Princeton University. Further support had been provided by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibition brochure is made possible through the support of the Parnassus Foundation, courtesy of Jane and Raphael Bernstein.


Oct. 16: Lecture | Chigusa, a Much-Admired Jar Full of Tea

  • Princeton University Art Museum, 5:30 p.m.
  • Louise Cort, curator of ceramics at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, will discuss Chigusa and the exhibition it inspired. A reception in the galleries will follow.

Nov. 7–8: Symposium | Contextualizing Chigusa: The Arts in and around Tea in Sixteenth-century Japan

  • 101 McCormick Hall, Princeton University, 4:30 p.m., Nov. 7; 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., Nov. 8
  • Major international scholars will present original research on areas of Japanese art that intersect with the world of Chigusa, including painting, calligraphy, ceramics and textiles.

Nov. 9: Masters of Tea

  • Princeton University Art Museum, 3 p.m.
  • Nobuko Manabe of the Omotesenke School of Tea will offer a glimpse into Japanese tea culture.

Tour Schedule

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C.: Feb. 22–July 27, 2014

Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey: Oct. 11, 2014—Feb. 1, 2015

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Allan Dean

Allan Dean is editor, publisher, and founder of the Atlantic Highlands Herald. Published since 1999 and selected in 2000 by the Borough of Atlantic Highlands as one of their official newspapers, making...