Japan Foundation

Cheney Cowles: Collecting Japanese art like a samurai

A review of Poetic Imagination in Japanese Art: Selections from the Collection of Mary and Cheney Cowles at the Portland Art Museum

Forty years ago, Cheney Cowles bought his first Japanese painting. The work is a charming illustration of a samurai accompanied by a poem by the 19th century nun, Ōtagaki Rengetsu. The samurai charges forth toward the viewer, caught mid-stride. His enthusiasm and drive are palpable; his momentum, unstoppable. The same can be said for Cowles’s enthusiasm and drive for collecting. Only four decades later, Maribeth Graybill, the Curator of Asian Art at the Portland Art Museum, calls the collection “without question one of the finest collections of Japanese art in private hands.”

Ōtagaki Rengetsu (Japanese, 1791–1875), Samurai Footman with Poem, 1867, hanging scroll; ink and light color on paper, 12 13/16 x 17 1/2 in., Collection of Mary and Cheney Cowles.

Selections from Cowles’s collection are on display, many for the first time, at Portland Art Museum’s new exhibition, Poetic Imagination in Japanese Art which runs now through January 13, 2019. The theme “poetic imagination” was formulated by Graybill specifically in response to the Cowles collection. The heading is expansive as the show incorporates calligraphic texts, imaginary portraits of poets, monochrome ink paintings, and landscapes from the eighth through the twentieth century. Graybill defines poetry as something “illusive or fragmentary that requires you to emotionally and intellectually respond,” and all of the works in the exhibition bear some connection to this concept.