NEWS | Scholar Wen C. Fong (1930-2018) Commemorated by The MET and Princeton University

Guo Xinran

Wen C. Fong (1930-2018) was an outstanding scholar in the field of ancient Chinese art history. He passed away on October 3, 2018, at the age of 88, in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. On April 13, 2019, the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University held a memorial ceremony for Fong at the Princeton University Chapel.


Wen C. Fong, also known by his courtesy name 闻之Wenzhi, was born on December 9, 1930, in Shanghai. He started studying calligraphy at the age of 5 and gained the reputation of being a "child prodigy of calligraphy." At the age of 12, he held a public calligraphy exhibition in Shanghai. In 1948, Fong traveled to the United States to study at Princeton University. Initially, he pursued physics as his major but soon switched to European history, obtaining his bachelor's degree in 1951. He then pursued a doctoral degree in art history at the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, graduating in 1958. From 1954 to 1999, Fong served as a professor at Princeton University. After retiring, he taught at Tsinghua University from 2004 to 2007 and at Zhejiang University from 2009 to 2012.


In 1959, Wen C. Fong and Frederick W. Mote (1922-2005) from the East Asian Studies department at Princeton University established the first "Doctoral Program in Chinese Art" in the United States. In 1962, this program expanded to become the "Doctoral Program in Chinese and Japanese Art." Over the past half-century, this program has nurtured a group of top researchers and curators in the field of ancient Chinese art history, known as the "Princeton School." During his tenure as department chair in the 1970s, Fang Wen incorporated the study of the history of photography and pre-Columbian art of the Americas into the teaching and research of the Department of Art and Archaeology. As the inaugural curator and director of Asian Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, Fong expanded the museum's collections in various areas, including the photography collection from the McAlpin family and the Chinese calligraphy collection of John B. Elliott, which is widely regarded as one of the finest collections of ancient calligraphy outside of Asia.


Wen C. Fong made remarkable contributions to the development of the Asian Art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. From 1971 to 2000, Fong served as a Special Advisor and Director of the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to James Cahill (1926-2014), Fong held multiple positions at Princeton University, Princeton University Art Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, making him one of the busiest scholars. He not only had profound knowledge but also possessed the ability to mediate and coordinate in complex meetings. Prior to the 1970s, the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had only one exhibition room, one full-time position, and two dedicated researchers. According to Maxwell K. Hearn, the current Director of the Asian Art Department, at that time, the Asian art galleries could only display ceramics, Buddhist sculptures, and murals. Prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, the Metropolitan Museum of Art invited Fong to expand the collection of the Asian Art Department (then known as the "Department of Far Eastern Art"). Thirty years later, under Fong’s leadership, the Asian Art Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has more than fifty permanent galleries and thirteen full-time researchers, making it the largest and most significant collection of Asian art in the United States.


During Wen C. Fong's tenure, the Metropolitan Museum completed a series of historically significant acquisitions and donations. This included the purchase of twenty-five exquisite ancient Chinese paintings from the artist and collector C.C. Wang, 421 Japanese art objects obtained from Harry C. Packard, Chinese calligraphy and painting works received from John M. Crawford Jr., Chinese paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries collected by Robert H. Ellsworth, paintings acquired from the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang family, and Chinese paintings from the Oscar L. Tang family collection, among others. Fong’s level of expertise, social resources, negotiation abilities, the relatively lower prices of Chinese artworks in the last century, and the strong support of numerous New York collectors contributed to these historically significant donations and collections. According to Maxwell K. Hearn and James C. Y. Watt, former directors of the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum, those three decades were considered a golden period for the development of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum. For future generations, such achievements are seen as highly desirable but difficult to attain.


Wen C. Fong also led the construction of the Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum. The Astor Court, also known as the Astor Chinese Garden Court, is a Ming Dynasty-style garden located within the museum. According to Maxwell K. Hearn's recollection, in the late 1970s, Fong identified a space within the museum that had an overhead skylight and proposed the idea of constructing a Chinese garden there. Initially, the project faced resistance from the museum administration because the area where the skylight was to be projected had million-dollar air conditioning ducts in place. Through Fong’s negotiations, the project gained the support the museum’s trustee Brooke Astor, who provided the funding to relocate the ducts and invite twenty-six craftsmen from Suzhou. These craftsmen brought pre-made architectural components from Suzhou and constructed the Astor Court in the style of the "殿春簃 Dianchunyi" pavilion in Suzhou. The courtyard features a Moon Gate, Taihu rocks, bluestone paving, corridors, a small pavilion, and a wooden hall called the "明轩Ming-style Pavilion," which houses Chinese Ming-style furniture acquired from Robert H. Ellsworth's collection in 1976. This exquisite courtyard was completed in 1981 and became the first permanent cultural exchange project between China and the United States after the establishment of diplomatic relations.


In commemoration of the deceased, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has displayed a page from the 1976 donated album "归棹Returning Oars" by Shi Tao, at the entrance of the ongoing exhibition "Streams and Mountains Without End: Landscape Traditions of China." On the wall, there is a written tribute that states, "During Dr. Wen C. Fong's nearly thirty years of service at the Metropolitan Museum, he promoted appointments, gallery installations, acquisitions, exhibitions, and academic research, making the museum an international center for Asian art studies. The Metropolitan Museum and Asian Art Research acknowledge and express gratitude to Fang Wen for his contributions."


In the academic field, Wen C. Fong has been instrumental in advancing the study of ancient Chinese art history within the framework of Western art history. He emphasized the unique expressive language of ancient Chinese art, focusing on brushwork, compositional structures, and the intellectual history of China. At the same time, he bridged the gap between the history of ancient Chinese art and Western art history through formal analysis and stylistic analysis, establishing methodological connections. He often said, "My lifelong experience is to study art history by focusing on artworks." His emphasis on the visual language of artworks is evident in his teaching. His student, Maxwell K. Hearn, mentioned that Wen C. Fong would often open a Chinese calligraphy or painting at the beginning of a class and ask students to describe the visual language of the artwork, urging them to observe and think critically. In the preface to the translated edition of Fong’s works published in 2016, he succinctly expressed his scholarly philosophy: "Chinese painting has its own visual language. Analyzing its forms is the key to deciphering this visual language, thereby revealing its systemic formation, piecing together its developmental history, connecting the evidence of Chinese artworks with intellectual history, and ultimately incorporating them into a comprehensive narrative framework when we seek a holistic understanding of Chinese culture."



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About the Author

Dr. Guo Xinran, Art Director of Fu Qiumeng Fine Art. Her writings have published on Artforum and She acquired doctoral degree of Art History at Northwestern University, master's degree of East Asian Studies at Stanford University, and Bachelor's degree of Sociology at Peking University. 

August 22, 2019