As a child in China, Wan-go H.C. Weng, born to a family of art collectors that stretched five generations before him, remembers standing on tiptoes to see the fine paintings and calligraphic scrolls splayed on the family table as his father and his friends surveyed them with a critical eye. His father, playfully, would dismiss the boy’s curiosity, he recalled recently. “What do you know?” he would chide. Weng, undaunted, would respond: “I don’t know anything, but I like to look.”
More than 90 years later, a passion seeded in boyhood has culminated in the largest gift of Chinese art ever received by the Museum of Fine Arts. Weng has donated his family’s collection of 183 works of art — spanning 13 centuries and five dynasties of Chinese Imperial rule, built over six generations — to the museum. “He made a significant decision,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, the museum’s director. “This is a collection that’s been handed down through the family from one generation to another. This is a legacy gift, and I wouldn’t underestimate that word for him.”
The gift helps make the MFA’s collection of Chinese paintings one of the most important outside China, the museum says.
Weng, himself a renowned scholar of Chinese art, is particularly intimate with the MFA’s collection of Chinese art. Last summer, the museum showed his family’s “10,000 Miles Along the Yangzi River,” a 53-foot long 1699 scroll painting by the artist Wang Hui, in honor of his 100th birthday. It was an outward display acknowledging a deep relationship nearly 70 years in the making. On the occasion, Weng donated the piece to the museum — one of more than 20 gifts that he gave over the years.
Weng, who moved to New Hampshire in 1978, first connected to the museum through his own research in the 1940s, and he has been in close contact with a succession of curators and directors ever since. It afforded him a long view of the museum’s strengths and weaknesses, and how his collection might augment it.
“That was something Wan-go was very aware of for many years,” said Nancy Berliner, the museum’s curator of Chinese art. “Our collection is very strong in early Chinese paintings, from about 950 [A.D.] to 1350. But we don’t have as many masterpieces from the later periods, the Ming and Qing dynasties. His intention was to fill that gap.”
Teitelbaum concurred. “Where we’re weak, [Weng’s collection] augments,” he said. “As an institution that wants to have a comprehensive collection of Chinese art, this collection fits like a hand in a glove in our narrative.”
Among the many significant elements of Weng’s gift, Berliner said, are major masterpieces from the era’s most important artists: “The Suzhou Sceneries,” an album by Shen Zhou, the founder of the Wu School, made in the late 15th and early 16th centuries; landscape and calligraphic master Wen Zhengming’s “Nine Letters to Home,” from the 16th century; and works by Chen Hongshou, a Ming dynasty master about whom Weng himself has written a definitive book.
Weng came to the United States in 1938 to study engineering at Purdue University, but quickly grew bored with the field and found himself working as a comic book artist in New York before eventually taking up documentary filmmaking. After a short stint in Hollywood, Weng returned to New York to make films about Chinese art and culture. In 1948, the year before the Communist revolution in China, Weng brought his family collection to the United States.
His pursuits naturally led him to the MFA, where one of the country’s best collections of early Chinese art resided. And while Weng has given select pieces to other museums over the years, including the Harvard Art Museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Shanghai Museum, the MFA has always held a special place, he says.
“The first museum I ever visited in the US was the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and it became my museum,” he said in a statement. The relationship, long-standing, has become “particularly warm and meaningful for Wan-go over the last number of years,” Teitelbaum said. “We never asked for his collection. We let him know we were prepared to be the custodians of his collection, and I feel that very heavily: the sense that the institution will honor the spirit of the collector.”
An exhibition of selections from the Weng gift will go on view at the Museum next September, just after his 101st birthday in July. In the meantime, Weng is working on another book, on Shen Zhou.
Weng’s donation marks the second major gift for the MFA in just over a year. Last October, the MFA announced that it would receive 113 works of Dutch and Flemish golden age works from collectors Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie.