'Separating Sheep from Goats' Honors Sherman E. Lee's Legacy

Sheep and Goat (detail), c. 1300. Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322). Yuan dynasty. Handscroll, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art
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If you're a frequent visitor to the Cleveland Museum of Art, then you likely know about its world-renowned collection of Asian art. 

However, you might not know much about the man who was instrumental in piecing it together, Sherman E. Lee, CMA's director from 1958 to 1983. 

Sherman E. Lee c. 1952 [photo: Cleveland Museum of Art archives]

Noelle Giuffrida of Shaker Heights spotlights Lee in her new book "Separating Sheep from Goats: Sherman E. Lee and Chinese Art Collecting in Postwar America."

Lee had a lifelong passion for Asian art that was stoked when he served in the Pacific as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

During the war he took a 3-day trip to Beijing, which was a pivotal moment in his career.

"At the end of that visit [Lee] said, 'OK, I've been to Beijing, I made it back, I'm really tired. Now I can be a curator!'"

When he heard about the Monuments Men, who helped preserve European art during and after the war, Lee was eager to join.

"He tried to get involved but he didn't really have the connections to do so.  A lot of the people who were Monuments Men and Women were from Harvard.  Lee did not go to Harvard," Giuffrida said.

Lee did work under Cleveland Museum of Art curator Howard Hollis when he was an art history doctoral student at Western Reserve University prior to the war, and Hollis invited Lee to join the Monuments Men working in Japan.

"Lee said, 'Oh my gosh I just got back from the war. But I'll take it, I'll go!'" she said.

He spent a couple of years working in Japan, which proved invaluable to his career.

"Sherman Lee would go to different provinces and different temples and meet up with Japanese scholars and local dignataries.  He got a first rate education in Japanese art but also Chinese art," she said.

Wang Yuan, Quails and Sparrows in an Autumn Scene, . Hanging scroll, ink on paper,  Bequest of Mrs. A. Dean Perry, Cleveland Museum of Art

Whe Lee returned to the U.S., he first worked at the Seattle Art Museum  and later returned to the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1952 as a curator of Asian art. He went on to become CMA's director in 1958.

Lee also became the authority on Asian art and wrote the influential book, "A History of Far Eastern Art," first published in 1964.

"It really became the survey of Asian art that many interested museum people and collectors bought but also university teachers used," she said.

As a curator and professor, Giuffrida was inspired by Lee's book and used a Lee quote from it for the title of her book, "Separating Sheep from Goats."

Lee used the biblical phrase on the saved versus the unsaved to refer to separating the good from the bad in collecting Asian art.

Giuffrida thought of a well known Chinese painting, called "Sheep and Goat," from the Freer Sackler gallery in Washington, D.C., where she's from.

"I thought, 'what a great example of how Sherman Lee can speak to an audience that's much more familiar with European and American traditions as well as an audience that's familiar with Chinese traditions," she said.

Lee's legacy lives on with the Asian-art collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art on display in the museum's west wing, which opened in 2013.

Eight Great Bodhisattvas of the Ten Stages of Enlightenment, Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, John L. Severance Fund, Cleveland Museum of Art

While Giuffrida thinks Lee would appreciate the new wing, she believes he might be a little less appreciative of how it's displayed.

"He was rather infamous for crowding things into cases.  Now the style of display is very much one object by itself with lots of space around it.  He would probably be a little disappointed that there weren't more things in the Asian gallery," she said laughing.

Noelle Giuffrida discuses her book "Separating Sheep from Goats: Sherman E. Lee and Chinese Art Collecting in Postwar America" Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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