Hei Hung-Lu (left) and Robert H. Ellsworth (right) in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, hunting for ink paintings in 1981. Courtesy Andy Hei. 

The Sensuous Immortal

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth (1929-2014)

China USA Japan Hong Kong Korea, South Tibet
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

“Objects are your best teachers,” Robert Hatfield Ellsworth liked to say. But now that America’s greatest Asian art dealer is gone, many of us recall Bobby, as he was known to his friends, as our best teacher. Collector, connoisseur, world traveler, scholar, author, generous donor and cultural diplomat, Ellsworth was the preeminent force behind the growth of the market for Asian art in the United States from the mid-1960s until his death on August 3, 2014, in New York City. And while he is best known for his passion for Chinese archaic jades, early Buddhist sculpture, calligraphic rubbings, Ming hardwood furniture, Qing monochrome porcelain and modern Chinese painting and calligraphy, he was equally influential in stimulating the fields of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art. He also loved Japan. Among the first works of art that greeted visitors to his 22-room apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue was a superb Kamakura-period (1185–1333 CE) standing wood figure of the Jizō Bosatsu. It was a likely mascot for a man who was a loyal friend and protector: a magnanimous being of grace.

Ellsworth’s death spells the end of an era. Over the last few years, we have lost the last intrepid few who built the Asian art world in postwar America. Sherman Lee (1918–2008) of the Cleveland Museum of Art, John Rosenfield (1924–2013) of Harvard University, and James Cahill (1926–2014) of the University of California, Berkeley, each contributed to expanding museum collections, scholarship and public appreciation of “Oriental art” at a time when the European tradition dominated the study of art history. They and others forged a tight community of curators, scholars, collectors and dealers who shared a love for Asian art, history and culture. To be one among them was to feel initiated into an extended family, complete with ghosts, eccentrics and legend. Highly cosmopolitan, this generation of scholar-curators was expert in Asian art but never narrowly doctrinaire. Ellsworth, a high-school dropout, dressed like an Edwardian and drank his bourbon from a Queen Anne silver tumbler. In the introduction to his three-volume, 38-pound book, Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 1800–1950 (1987), Ellsworth compares his subject to the music of Richard Strauss: “His operas as well as Chinese painting begin with faint themes whose beauty can be readily grasped after hearing the full-blown melodies of the last act.”

I first heard about Ellsworth when I was a teenager living in Ashiya, Japan. My parents were great friends with David Kidd, an American Orientalist of the old school who lived in a daimyo mansion furnished with Chinese art and antiques. Kidd would occasionally sell a treasure or two. He had lived in “Old Peking” from 1946 until 1950, but was forced to leave under Mao Zedong’s antiforeigner policies. He settled in Japan and became famous for his salons, where Tibetan rinpoches, Daitokuji abbots, members of novelist Yukio Mishima’s militia and visiting luminaries such as Buckminster Fuller would all come for tea and stay until three in the morning, enjoying extraordinary conversation. Kidd’s house was also a destination for visiting Asian art dealers. Charlotte Horstmann from Hong Kong, who Kidd knew when she had her shop in the Peking Hotel, was a frequent guest. Although I don’t remember ever meeting Ellsworth there, his name was intoned with a reverence that Kidd paid to few others. In 1971, Kidd sent an eager student of art in our midst named Keita Itoh to meet Ellsworth in New York. “I came to study American art but Bobby turned me back to my roots,” Itoh said to me recently. “He always had the pioneer eyes.” Itoh became an associate of Bobby’s and worked at the gallery RH Ellsworth, Ltd., for most of the last 40 years.

Portrait of Robert H. Ellsworth in his youth.
Courtesy the Estate of Robert H. Ellsworth. 

In 1982, I moved from Japan to take up my first job as curatorial assistant to Rand Castile, the founding director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York. I recall Castile introducing me to Ellsworth the very first week. “If there were an emperor of the Asian art world, he would be it,” he said. “Your education begins here.” I would join Castile on his regular visits to 960 Fifth Avenue, often trying with embarrassing results to keep up with their impressive smoking and drinking habits. We would gather in the paneled English library where Ellsworth held evening court. Museum directors from Europe, curators on courier trips from Japan, young Chinese scholars, and glamorous friends, neighbors and clients, such as Charlotte C. Weber and Douglas Dillon, would wander in and out, exchanging gossip one minute and examining a superb new acquisition the next. Sometimes we would go off to the kitchen to inspect a Chola bronze or a Sui stone sculpture that Ellsworth and Itoh were in the process of restoring. Such “education” became an easy habit.

When, years later, I succeeded Castile as director of Japan Society Gallery, Ellsworth took me on as his charge. It was rather like being promoted from a courtier to a minister at court. He counseled me on institutional strategy, exhibitions, loans and funding. He threw me together with people who might help my mission and dictated the outcome to everyone’s delight. In 2003, several top Buddhist art curators from the national museums of Nara in Japan, and Gyeongju and Seoul in Korea, visited New York for an exhibition I had organized, “Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan.” To their astonishment, Ellsworth entertained them with the Count Ōtani Kozui collection of early Buddhist sutras and historic texts from China’s ancient Silk Road centers, Dunhuang and Turfan. (This collection was later sold to the Shanghai Museum.) And while Ellsworth’s praise was as thrilling as his critiques were harsh, the high standards to which he held museums and their custodians lent gravity and nobility to our purpose. Beyond teaching me about beauty, he instilled a deep sense of loyalty toward our shared enterprise of Asian art in America.

Alexandra Munroe (left) and Robert H. Ellsworth (right) at Japan Society Gallery, 1999. Courtesy Alexandra Munroe. 

Over the years, Ellsworth has been hailed in the press as an “American Mandarin” and the “King of Ming.” He was born in Manhattan in 1929 to LaFerne Hatfield Ellsworth, an opera singer, and Presley Elmer Ellsworth, a dental surgeon. He was a direct descendent of Oliver Ellsworth, the third Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. This made Ellsworth an alluring paradox: an American aristocrat of the Depression era. He began collecting and trading antiques in high school, and fell in love with Chinese art through volunteering for the China War Relief in the early 1940s. He left high school and went to work at an antiques store run by a family friend. “You’re fortunate if you know what you want in life,” he later remarked in a 1984 article in Connoisseur. “You can eliminate wasting a lot of time.” One day, he bought a Chinese pot for eight dollars in a thrift shop and declared it was a 17th-century reign. His boss sent him to meet Alice Boney (1901–88), the formidable doyenne of New York’s Oriental art dealers, to see what he could learn. In the same Connoisseur article, Boney recalled: “This young man came to see me with a jar—it was not an important piece but it was Ming. I was very impressed. And from then on, of course, I couldn’t lose him.”

Ellsworth’s ensuing 40-year friendship with Boney is one of the great love stories of the 20th century. “She was his mother, mentor, teacher,” Masahiro Hashiguchi, Ellsworth’s lifelong companion, told me. “She was very straightforward and didn’t like any nonsense.” Boney took Ellsworth along on her travels to Japan, Cambodia, Thailand and India. (She braved the Bamiyan caves in Afghanistan on her own one winter, shivering in a Dior coat while trying to spirit away Gandharan objects of art—successfully, we’re told.) They visited temple sites, ancient ruins, local museums and every dealer in the network. “An eye can be nurtured, but it cannot be learned,” Boney once said in a 1988 issue of Orientations. “It is a gift from the gods.” She saw that gift in Ellsworth, and trained him as her protégé and, ultimately, as her own peerless peer. Boney introduced Ellsworth to Alan Priest, curator of Far Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1928 to 1963. He, too, saw the young man’s talent and conspired to entice him to enter the museum field, to no avail. He and Boney maneuvered to get him into Yale, in 1949, to study Chinese with the eminent professor Wang Fangyu. But Ellsworth didn’t pass the exams. Instead, he charmed the Shanghai literatus into conducting research on his own arcane pursuits. Wang and Ellsworth became lifelong friends; his son, Shaofang, is one of Ellsworth’s 17 godchildren. Wang Fangyu gave Ellsworth his Chinese name, An Siyuan. It means “he whose mind is far away.”

Robert H. Ellsworth (left) together with art dealer Alice Boney (center) and his partner Masahiro Hashiguchi (right). Courtesy Masahiro Hashiguchi. 

A rare bronze figure of a Mahasiddha, Tibet, 11th/12th century, h: 34 cm, from the collection of Robert H. Ellsworth. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd., 2015. 

Many areas of collecting and dealing that distinguish Ellsworth’s record were first pioneered by Boney. This includes Chinese tomb sculpture, Ming furniture and modern Chinese painting. An heiress, Boney came to prominence as a self-taught dealer of Asian art in the 1930s and ’40s. The interwar period saw scholar-curators such as Alan Priest at the Met, John A. Pope at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Laurence Sickman at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and Langdon Warner and Max Loehr of Harvard, all working to advance Chinese art in America. In the aforementioned Orientations article, Boney reflected that this “was very difficult at that point because there was a complete ignorance of Chinese art.” Ellsworth took up the cause and, in a typical gesture of tribute, dedicated his first book to Boney. Illustrated with several works from his own collection, some with Boney provenance, Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties (1971) is regarded as a standard text on this subject.

Ellsworth’s connection with Boney was also personal. On one of his trips to Tokyo, where Boney lived for 16 years, Ellsworth met a young member of her entourage. Masahiro Hashiguchi, known as Masa, moved to New York at the age of 19 and stayed with Bobby until the end. “Bobby taught me about life,” he told me recently. In 1980, Ellsworth and Hashiguchi opened a plush restaurant that would become a legend of that New York society era. It was called the Gibbon, after a screen painting by the Rinpa artist Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828) that hung in the downstairs bar. As if his beautiful Fifth Avenue apartment were not backdrop enough for Ellsworth’s dashing manner, the Gibbon played to his love of classic Hollywood glamour. His great friend and actress Claudette Colbert was a regular. Frank Sinatra came and sang songs. John Gotti, the “Dapper Don” of mobsters, liked to drop in, before he was sentenced to life in prison in 1992. I remember Ellsworth hosting opening dinners for Japan Society Gallery exhibitions there; some went on for so long the guests never made it to the museum.

As a dealer, Ellsworth valued building collections over selling things. He cultivated a small number of clients over decades, often advising, culling and steering their holdings toward an ultimate museum coup. John D. Rockefeller III bought his first object from Ellsworth in 1961. After Rockefeller’s death in 1978, his collection of some 300 masterpieces was donated to Asia Society, an institution that he and his wife Blanchette had founded to help promote American understanding of Asia. Scholars agree that the collection’s strengths in Song and Ming ceramics and in Buddhist and Hindu sculptures of Indian, Tibetan, Khmer and Javanese origin are due in some measure to Ellsworth’s guidance. Ellsworth also helped to build Sir Joseph Hotung’s collection, which resides in the Chinese art wing at the British Museum, and Charlotte C. and John C. Weber’s collection of archaic jades, ceramics and metalwork, now a centerpiece of the Arts of China galleries at the Met.

In a 2014 article written in his remembrance, published on Asianart.com, Pratapaditya Pal recounts Ellsworth’s relationship with the famous Pan-Asian Collection, built over a quarter-century by Christian Humann, a financier and member of the Lazard Frères banking family. The Pan-Asian Collection comprised some 1,600 objects and paintings focused on Hindu and Buddhist themes. Pal, the longtime curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, organized an exhibition featuring highlights from Humann’s collection in 1977 entitled “Sensuous Immortals.” In his tribute, Pal describes the show as “probably the most important exhibition of Indian, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian art ever organized to date in the world.” After Humann’s untimely death in 1981, Ellsworth bought the entire collection for USD 12 million.

Ellsworth subsequently followed a careful plan for the Pan-Asian Collection. First, he sold many of its finest works to the Met, the Cleveland Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among other leading institutions. He then produced two landmark auctions, at Christie’s in 1982 and at Sotheby’s in 1990. When asked why he was selling, in a 1990 article in the New York Times, Ellsworth replied: “I have to pay the rent, and I decided that the investment had been held to the right point—I think that I could take 188 pieces and sell them and have [the money] better invested in eight.” And finally, he kept some of the very best objects for himself. Some of these will appear in Christie’s New York sale of Ellsworth’s collection in March 2015, which the house is promoting as “the largest private collection of Asian art ever to appear at auction.” According to the upcoming sale’s press release, “Ellsworth placed one of his most beloved pieces [of the Pan-Asian Collection], a Tibetan Mahasiddha, in his bedroom, and each morning enthusiastically greeted the bronze as if it were a friend.” 

(Left to right) Keita Itoh, Robert H. Ellsworth, Hei Hung-Lu and Andy Hei, in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with the banner of Ellsworth’s painting exhibition, “19th- and 20th-Century Chinese Painting: Selections From the Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Collection” hanging over the entrance, 1988. Courtesy Andy Hei.

Of all the collections Ellsworth developed, he was most passionate about modern Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. His work in this field was his greatest scholarly contribution, leading to the reevaluation of an entire period of artistic endeavor. Once again, Alice Boney was his inspiration. “I was introduced to modern Chinese painting by Alice Boney in 1949,” Ellsworth wrote in Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 1800–1950. “As both dealer and collector, she pioneered this field in the West; many of the finest paintings I own came from her.” Boney bought her first Qi Baishi (1864–1957) ink painting in the mid-1940s, and eventually amassed over 100 of his works. Her collection became the foundation for Ellsworth’s commitment to establish modern Chinese painting and calligraphy as a legitimate field of study, connoisseurship and collecting in the West. This was a tall order at the time. In the 1980s, Sherman Lee would visit Ellsworth and ask, “Are you still collecting that toilet paper, Bobby?” Ellsworth’s pursuit of this field was both financially canny and intellectually visionary. As a dealer, he took the long view. His motto was “Buy it up, wait for 30 years, and sell.” “You might have to pay for my mistakes,” I once heard him say to a client. “But you will never have to live with them.” Ellsworth’s prescient conviction about the worth of long-neglected Chinese calligraphy and painting of the modern period was partly inspired by his own youthful training as a painter and his instinctive appreciation of modern abstract art. He selected artists on the basis of their individual powers of expression and their creative persistence “despite the horrendous turmoil of their times.” In his preface to Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 1800–1950, a massive and impeccably researched catalog of his collection of several hundred works, Ellsworth argued how the 19th century was key to understanding what came before and after China’s encounter with modernity.

To claim the nineteenth century is an era of genius overlooked is excessive; to claim that it produced only mediocrity is antediluvian. This period, rich in figure, animal, and flower painting, is the foundation upon which the twentieth century has flourished . . . If after seeing these paintings and calligraphies you are not convinced of their significance and beauty, then I will have failed with a potential convert. Conviction, however, forces me to believe that the converted will be legion.

ZHANG DAQIAN, Splashed-Color Landscape, 1965, hanging scroll, ink and color on paper, 60.3 × 95.9 cm. Gift of Robert H. Ellsworth. Copyright and courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Besides Qi Baishi, Ellsworth amassed works by other modern masters, including Fu Baoshi, Li Keran, Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu, Pan Tianshou, Xu Beihong and Zhang Daqian. As soon as Americans were permitted to travel to the People’s Republic of China, Ellsworth and Keita Itoh went in search of treasure. They rummaged through the state-run art and craft emporia in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and other cities. Among their companions was Ellsworth’s old friend, the Hong Kong dealer Hei Hung-Lu, and his son Andy Hei, whom they nicknamed “Bing Kuai” (“ice” in Chinese), because he carried the ice for Ellsworth’s stash of bourbon. Over the following years, Ellsworth, Itoh and Hei visited China together frequently. In particular, Ellsworth was in search of Shi Lu (1919–82), a reclusive painter, poet and calligrapher whose refusal to revise a landscape painting depicting a diminutive figure of Mao led to the artist’s persecution at the hands of Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Thrown into prison and denied access to his tools for three years, he went mad. Ellsworth sought out Shi Lu’s dark landscapes and “brutal” calligraphy but found very few. In 1980, as they were just about to leave Xi’an empty-handed, Hei Hung-Lu came running back to the hotel. He had found Shi Lu’s mistress . . . and Ellsworth his trove of Shi Lu. Ellsworth’s keen appreciation reveals insights that more conventional art historians would never dare expose. In Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 1800–1950, he writes of Shi Lu’s landscape, Stately Pines on Mount Hua (1972): “To whatever extremes he pushed, pulled or shoved the brush and ink, in painting or calligraphy, his message is explicit. Mount Hua with its stately pines must have appealed to this renegade and fortified his belief that one can survive even on such a precipice.”

It took some doing for Ellsworth to persuade his good friends at the Met to accept his donation of 451 paintings and calligraphies spanning the 19th to mid-20th centuries. At the time, there was virtually no international bibliography, discourse or market for the genre. Venerable guardians of the discipline of Chinese art history found the experimental styles of works in Ellsworth’s collection to be jarring, confusing or simply outside departmental bounds. Painted in ink and mineral pigment on paper or silk in traditional formats, the works in Ellsworth’s collection reflect “hybrid” influences ranging from Impressionism to social realism, and from traditional wood block printing to modernist abstraction. It was thanks to the Met’s director Philippe de Montebello and to the irrepressible intellectual curiosity of Wen Fong, longtime chairman of the Met’s Department of Asian Art, that the historic gift was ratified with the promise of a permanent acknowledgement in the galleries. By the time the Met mounted its 2001 exhibition, “Between Two Cultures: Late-Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” the field had taken off. The show was organized by Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s long-serving Chinese painting curator who had worked with Fong to expand the Asian galleries to preeminence within the museum and the world. “The history of this art has just begun to be written,” art critic Holland Cotter wrote in a 2001 review for the New York Times, “Meanwhile the Met’s survey offers a quiet sort of revolution.” In April that year, a Shi Lu painting sold at Sotheby’s for a record price of nearly USD 75,000.

SHI LU, Stately Pines on Mount Hua, 1972, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 136.6 × 69.5 cm. Gift of Robert H. Ellsworth. Copyright and courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Ellsworth’s largesse was not limited to US museums. His main charitable cause was the China Heritage Arts Foundation. He founded this organization in Hong Kong, through which he raised funds from friends around the world to restore a Ming dynasty village in Huizhou, Anhui. He had known about this architectural gem for four decades before he first visited there in 1991. Although the exquisite structures had been spared the destruction that befell so much of China’s architectural heritage during the tumultuous modern period, restoring them properly was an arduous task. In appreciation, the residents of Huizhou made Ellsworth, or An Siyuan as he was known to them, an honorary citizen. “I feel Chinese,” Ellsworth said to Connoisseur in 1984. “I admire and feel sympathetic to the Oriental attitude that life is not easy and that one should make the best of it.”

Robert Ellsworth’s death is a profound loss. He was a friend and mentor who played a vital role in our enchanted field. Perhaps we can take solace from one of Shi Lu’s poems inscribed on Stately Pines on Mount Hua, one of Bobby’s favorite paintings:

I love the pines on Mount Hua,

Tall, noble, solemn and dignified.

Their rising trunks vie with the sun and the moon,

Resisting cold winds through the years.

They shake their arms at the sky-scraping ridge,

And hold high their heads like striding blue dragons,

Supporting the clouds forever,

Without taking flight to the heavens.