The Museum of Fine Arts’ big Hokusai show, opening April 5, brings together more than 230 works by Japan’s most popular artist. Katsushika Hokusai, as he is now most widely known, was an eccentric who changed aliases more than 30 times. An exuberant showman, he once dipped brooms in vats of ink to draw a house-sized portrait of a saint in a single day, then painted birds so tiny they could only be appreciated with a magnifying lens. Best known for his mass-market prints in the ukiyo-e, or Floating World, tradition, Hokusai was also a versatile painter, a maker of lavish custom prints, and an illustrator of books and board games. He did his best work, such as the iconic print of a boat in dangerous waters known as The Great Wave, beginning at age 70.
Hokusai, who lived from 1760 to 1849, was both a great artist and an outsize character. But the labels accompanying the works in the MFA’s exhibition point to another eccentric who made the show possible. Eighty percent of the Hokusai pieces come from the Boston-born and -bred collector William Sturgis Bigelow. In many ways the opposite of Hokusai, Bigelow was an introvert born rich, rather than an extrovert born poor. But like Hokusai, he reinvented himself to create the life he wanted. Bigelow was born in 1850, and the suicide of his mother when he was a child indirectly led to his art collecting. He grew up shy and depressed in the household of his domineering father, a renowned surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. The son, fearing he was carrying traits of hereditary mental illness, decided against having his own children. Though he obediently went to medical school, he balked at marrying and practicing surgery, as his father wished. Young Bigelow escaped his father’s influence by running off to Japan in 1882 on what was to be a short visit. When his father telegraphed him to return home, the son rebelled, staying for seven glorious, hedonistic art-collecting years.
For Bigelow, collecting art in Japan was, in part, a way of competing with his father, who was a trustee of what is now the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He also knew that donating his acquisitions to the museum could ease his eventual return into Boston society. “You will have to build a new wing on to the Museum when I get home this time,” the younger Bigelow boasted from Japan in a letter to the museum’s director in 1883. “The present building will not begin to hold my accumulations.” While leading the sybaritic life of a wealthy expatriate among friends who were also connoisseurs of Japanese art, Bigelow began to buy and buy.
In 1883, when the Boston heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner toured Japan, she found the country “so fascinating that I well understand Sturgis Bigelow, who cannot tear himself away. [He] wears the Japanese garment always when in his house.” Indeed, Bigelow seems to have been trying on a Japanese identity to see whether it fit. In 1884, when friends landed a commission to investigate repairs to traditional artwork in Osaka and Kyoto, Bigelow went along, quietly giving money to temples in need of funds and buying ancient art as opportunity arose. On a visit to a temple outside Kyoto, Bigelow met a charismatic monk and decided to convert to Buddhism. In September 1885, he was inducted into the esoteric Mikkyo sect, a move that set him even further apart from his Yankee forebears. As he noted in a letter, his father did “not take any stock in Buddhism, & thinks that I am hovering on the verge of lunacy, because I do not come home & get up some grandchildren for him, like a well-regulated Bostonian.”
His collecting efforts focused not only on the high classical art of Buddhism and feudal Japan, valued by Japan’s cultural elites, but also on the art form of the masses, ukiyo-e, or pictures of the Floating World, as Tokyo’s district of theaters, artists, and brothels was called. Carefully and systematically, Bigelow bought more than 500 paintings and 30,000 woodblock prints of the sort that Hokusai and other ukiyo-e artists created. As he put it in an 1889 letter, “I think the M.F.A. has now got a series of prints that illustrate pretty much everything that is worth illustrating in the history of block-printing in Japan.” His choices were superb, though some of the paintings he amassed were perceived as scandalously erotic and weren’t exhibited in Boston for nearly 100 years.
Bigelow returned to Boston in 1889, after his Buddhism teacher died . His father died soon after , and a new phase of his life began. He donated his Japanese art collection, more than 40,000 pieces, to the MFA (whose total collection today numbers about 450,000 pieces). Bigelow’s treasures included priceless bronze Buddhas, exquisitely painted screens, samurai swords, kimonos, and even common kitchenware that was simply and beautifully made. In 1891, he was appointed to his father’s seat on the museum’s board of trustees, assuring his status at the highest levels in Boston society. The onetime rebel took up residence in a grand house on Beacon Street opposite the Common, filled it with fine art, and lived the rest of his life as a dilettante — he died in 1926. His great escape had worked; he’d returned to Boston on terms of his choosing. And visitors to the MFA have benefited ever since.