The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts(MMFA) invites visitors to delve into the heart of an extraordinary collection that reflects one man’s passion for intriguing Asian objects. The exhibition Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics presents close to 150 ceramic pieces from the eminent Montrealer’s collection, which today has been dispersed and now belongs to the MMFA and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Cups, bowls and pots are accompanied by a variety of carefully written archival documents and even watercolours by Sir William Van Horne (1843-1915).

For visitors who wish to enhance their experience of Japanese art, many other ceramic pieces from his collections are on display in the dedicated Japanese gallery of the new Stephan Crétier and Stéphany Maillery Wing featuring the MMFA’s Arts of One World collection.

A passionate Montreal collector

Sir William Van Horne, who lived at 1139 Sherbrooke Street West in Montreal, just steps from the Museum, had many achievements to his credit. Not only did he build Canada’s transcontinental railway while president of Canadian Pacific, he also assembled an exceptional collection of Japanese art and ceramics. Between 1883 and1893, he acquired close to 1,200 examples of Japanese ceramics produced for the domestic market. The Van Horne collection was world renowned during the collector’s lifetime.

This collection is exceptional not for the number of objects but for the taxonomic compulsion and diligence with which Van Horne documented his passion. He established an individual relationship with each item in his collection, which he knew by heart. Every bowl, bottle and vase, along with other utilitarian items in stoneware and terracotta, was catalogued in a series of notebooks–presented in this exhibition –in addition to being carefully illustrated, and in some cases, rendered in large watercolours. The exhibition includes several of these “case studies,”where an object, its description, sketch and watercolour are displayed side by side.

The golden age of collecting

The second half of the nineteenth century was a golden age for collecting art in Europe and North America. In Canada, the epicentre of this trend was Montreal, the country’s economic capital at the time. During this era of colonial expansion, businessmen collected prolifically and displayed their works of art and European and Asian objects to underscore their power and social standing. Sir William Van Horne was one of them. He occasionally he opened his home to the public, where the works were presented were displayed in a museum-like display. More scientific than accumulative,Van Horne’s obsession with these objects reflected his desire to better understand Japanese culture, even if he never set foot in Japan. Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics is an opportunity to reexamine this collection dating back to a time when orientalism and colonial conquests informed collectors’ tastes,from a contemporary perspective, placing the ceramics in a broader context and presenting historical elements in a more nuanced manner.

Sir William Van Horne

William Cornelius Van Horne was born in 1843 in Illinois. At a very young age,he developed an interest in paleontology and fossil classification. Leaving school at age 13, he found a job with the Illinois Central Railway and then with the Chicago & Alton Railway, where he became superintendent general at the age of 29. He subsequently became president of the Southern Minnesota Railroad,where in his first year he successfully turned around the financially troubled company with his innovations.

In 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway faced a daunting challenge: a dream of connecting the West Coast of the country with the East Coast by building a railroad within 10 years. To do so, the company called upon Van Horne’s talents. His assignment was to lay 4,665 kilometres of rail across a continent that had scarcely even been surveyed. He rose to the challenge in 1885,despite a host of obstacles, and spent 11 years as president of Canadian Pacific. Under his auspices, the company was restored to financial health and would become the world’s largest transportation system. He left this position to launch a railway in Cuba. His success and his involvement with the boards of directors of some 40 Canadian companies and organizations –including the Art Association of Montreal,forerunner to the MMFA –make him one of the country’s most influential businessmen.When he died in 1915, he was a Canadian citizen, British knight and multimillionaire.

In 1944, Van Horne’s daughter donated a group of 595 works tothe Art Association of Montreal, including paintings by Canaletto, Cézanne, Daumier, Greco, Guardi, Monet and Tiepolo, along with 217 Japanese ceramics. This was the beginning of the MMFA’S collection of Asian art. During his lifetime, Van Horne also gave 150 other ceramic objects from his collection to the ROM.

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