Antique, crumbling Japanese silk paintings at Decatur House get new life after 140 years

The geisha girl has her black hair pulled back and fixed with a long hairpin and red ribbon. Her floor-length kimono is light brown, trimmed in blue made from powdered azurite. Her skin is the color of a pearl.

Fair and delicate, she’s believed to have once had the eye of President Ulysses S. Grant, to whom she may have been given.

But she’s only a silk girl, painted on a silk panel 140 years ago. And until recently, her image, which once hung in the historic Decatur House on Lafayette Square, looked its age: badly damaged, discolored and grimy.

No more. Last year, she was handed over to Washington conservator Yoshi Nishio, who is restoring the image of the geisha and five other paintings by Utagawa Kunitsuru so they can be rehung.

They won’t be ready for the National Cherry Blossom Festival — the annual multi-week celebration of all things Japanese that began Wednesday.

But visitors will probably get to see them by June, according to Leslie Jones, curator for the White House Historical Association, which helps run Decatur House.

The paintings, which are roughly six feet tall and 21 / 2-feet-wide, are believed to have been created in 1873, amid the rich cultural exchange of that day between Japan and the United States. One of the six is signed and dated.

They have hung in the house probably for more than a century, as generations of Washington’s elite gathered for soirees under the home’s grand English chandeliers and ornate ceilings.

Tarnished by decades of cigar, cigarette and fireplace smoke, as well as sunlight and moisture, the wrinkled paintings were taken down and put into storage in 2001.

They now have been gently restored over many hours with water, solvents, cotton swabs and bamboo brushes with sable bristles in Nishio’s studio in Adams Morgan.

Some of the work was done under magnification and with a scalpel, he said, “just like a medical doctor.”

Nishio and his assistant, Kyoichi Itoh, had to soak the paintings in a water tank to get them off the board they had been glued to. “All the acidic grit [and] degradation came out,” he said. “It was like a brownish juice.”

One day last week, as he explained the work in his studio, he said the paintings are designed to illustrate what traditional Japanese people looked like.

There are portraits of a robed samurai with two swords in his waist sash; two elegant white cranes against a backdrop of cherry blossoms; and a long-tailed rooster perched in a tree.

Others depict a woman wearing a pair of “geta” — wooden platform flip-flops — in a snowfall, and a woman swathed in a head scarf in a blizzard. The geisha, or traditional female entertainer, is shown holding a shamisen, a three-string guitar with a long neck.

Jones and Nishio said the leading theory is that the works were acquired by Grant, when he visited Japan in 1879 as part of a world tour.

Grant’s last stop was Japan, Jones said. There, he was greeted as a hero and sat for a portrait in Japanese garb. He was fascinated by Japanese culture, Jones said.

Nishio, who has been a conservator for 38 years and has worked at Washington’s Freer Gallery and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, said he believed the paintings might have been created by Kunitsuru for the tourist trade.

“I don’t want to make it sound cheap, but these might be catered to Westerners,” he said. They were too large for domestic taste in Japan.

But they were done with skill by a well-known artist using traditional Japanese paint made of hand-mixed pigment, often crafted with minerals such as azurite, and animal gelatin, he said.

Jones said the pieces haven’t been appraised in years and she’s not sure what they’re worth.

She said she believes that upon his return home, Grant may have given the paintings to a close friend, Edward Fitzgerald Beale, who then owned Decatur House.

After that, the paintings were roughly handled.

First, they were applied as a kind of wallpaper in the 195-year-old house, which is named for Stephen Decatur, the American Naval hero who was killed in duel shortly after he had the house built.

Later they were taken off the walls and glued to heavy-duty cardboard and hung like pictures.

They were displayed in the house’s second-floor parlor, the California Room, a main entertainment space where politicians, diplomats and military figures gathered.

Now they are permanently darkened.

“I just don’t think [the owners] knew anything about the nature of Japanese artwork,” Jones said. “Everyone knew Western art, and if it was art, it was on a canvas. ”

They were cleaned once before, in 1967, Jones said. She found them in storage in the house in 2001 — dirty and blistered but salvageable. “There is a way to mend everything,” she said.

The conservators said they were able to remove 35 to 40 percent of the grime. “There’s a limit that we can clean,” Nishio said. The paintings are now lightly attached to drying board to be flattened.

But the change has been dramatic.

“They look so much better than they did,” Jones said. “They were so much darker. There were parts of the background in these that you couldn’t see before. . . . It’s incredible.”

The work is being paid for by a $76,000 grant from Japan’s Sumitomo Foundation.

Decatur House, which is home to the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History, is across Lafayette Square from the White House.

As he described his work last week, Nishio was asked about the details and meaning of some of the paintings.

“We are conservators,” he said with a chuckle. “We don’t really look at the image as much [as] the deteriorated areas — like a dentist [who] can only recognize your teeth, not your face.”

 
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