Asian Art

Falconer on Horseback

China, Tang dynasty, 700s

earthenware with polychrome lead glaze, 16⅞ inches (42.9 cm) high

Charles Bayly Jr. Collection by exchange


From early Chinese history until about 1650, images of humans and animals were frequently placed in burial chambers to honor the deceased. The realistic modeling of this mounted falconer is dramatized by its three-color (sancai) green, brown, and cream glazes, a technical innovation of the Tang dynasty (618-907). Falconry and hunting were two of the many leisure pursuits of the wealthy class. This was a cosmopolitan age and the appearance of the falconer, with his high cheekbones and wide-collared jacket, suggests he may be of Turkic origin.

Circular Box China, Ming dynasty, 1400s–1500s lacquer on wood, 1⅞ inches (4.8 cm) high, 5¾ inches (14.6 cm) diameter Funds from Collectors’ Choice 1986 1986.16

This small box shows the painstaking skill required of a master lacquer craftsman. Over a paper-thin wood core, more than a hundred layers of red, black, green, and brownish-yellow lacquer have been applied and then carefully carved to produce a striking sculptural effect. Once held in a Japanese collection, this box probably served as an incense container. Its lid is decorated with a central design of five sunken C-scrolls and spearheads that are surrounded by five pommel scrolls, named for the ring pommel on early Chinese swords

Zhang Daqian (1899–1983) Lotus China, 1963 ink and color on paper, 28 x 52 inches (71.1 x 132.1 cm) signed and two seals of the artist, upper left Gift of the children of Mr. and Mrs. Wong Pao Hsie 1992.237

One of the most influential painters of twentieth-century China, Zhang Daqian is said to have transformed traditional Chinese painting into a contemporary form. He combined the talent and skill of the masters with the bold, innovative brushwork of a modern artist. This painting is inscribed, "Dedicated to Madam Shu Qing [Mrs. Wong Pao Hsie], a connoisseur, for her amusement. Dated the spring of 1963."

Shiva India, Rajasthan, Gupta dynasty, late 500s stone, 18¾ inches (47.6 cm) high Funds from Ruth Luby, Dorothy Heitler, Fay Shwayder, and Norma Degan in memory of their parents, Nellie and Jesse Shwayder, and from Acquisition Challenge Grant 1982.15

This fragmentary image of a four-armed Shiva has the idealized form developed by Gupta-period sculptors to portray sacred figures. His youthful appearance is an expression of his physical and spiritual beauty. There is little attempt to represent musculature. Instead, the smooth modeling captures the force of the god's inwardly held breath (prana), the essence of life.

Shiva, King of Dancers (Shiva Nataraja) India, Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, 1100s bronze, 36⅞ inches (93.7 cm) high Funds from Dora Porter Mason bequest 1947.2

The Hindu god Shiva dances the universe into and out of existence. The sound of his drum heralds its creation; his burning flame signals its final conflagration. In his dance, Shiva tramples on the demon of forgetfulness, shown in the form of an infant. The cycle of time—past, present, and future—runs through the circle of flames within which he dances.

Kausi Ragini India, Rajasthan, Bundi, attributed to Mia Sekh Fulla, about 1725–1750 color on paper, 7⅛ x 4⅞ inches (18.1 x 12.4 cm) Anonymous gift 1981.352

This painting is an illustration of a melody (raga or ragini) from a "garland of melodies" (ragamala), which would hold as many as 150 such paintings. The inscription above this one reads "Kausi Ragini of Dipaka, to be sung at sunset", and the colorful scene shown is one of peaceful evening devotion. The ragamala tradition combines painting, poetry, and music in a manner unique to North India.

Shinto Deity Japan, Heian period, 900s zelkova wood, 33½ inches (85.1 cm) high Funds from Edith Trimble Zinn bequest in memory of her husband, Comdr. Ralph Theodore Zinn 1980.95

One of the oldest and largest Shinto sculptures outside of Japan, this male deity is carved from a single tree trunk and preserves its original girth without attachments or joinery. Shinto art is sometimes called an "invisible art" because its images and sacred objects were intentionally concealed in shrines, where they were worshiped unseen by devotees.

Bishamonten Japan, Muromachi period, 1400s–1500s polychromed wood, 34 inches (86 cm) high, trident 37½ inches (95 cm) Gift in memory of John G. Powers 2000.155a–c

One of the Four Guardian Kings of Japanese Buddhism, Bishamonten is the protector of the North, considered the most dangerous direction. With a trident in his right hand and a stupa in his left, he tramples an evil spirit underfoot, his fierce countenance adding to his commanding presence. This strong, dynamic figure is characteristic of the Muromachi period (1333–1573), a time dominated by the military class.

Isozaki (detail) Japan, Momoyama period, late 1500s two handscrolls, ink, color, and gold on paper, 12 x 288 inches (30.4 x 731.5 cm) Asian Art Department Acquisition Fund 1970.12

This painting is from a pair of long, horizontal scrolls that depict the medieval morality tale of the warrior Isozaki and his first wife, who murders the second wife he had taken while absent from his hometown. His first wife repents and becomes a nun, and Isozaki realizes that he is to blame for the misfortune and also turns to a life of religion. The detail here is from the first scroll and shows the first wife, disguised as a demon, attacking the second wife with a staff. The scrolls are of the Nara ehon (Nara picture book) genre, illustrated works of Japanese prose literature that were widely popular in medieval Japan.

Totoya Hokkei (1780–1850) Woman Painting a Dragon Japan, Edo period, about 1832 woodblock print, pigment on paper, 8¼ x 7¼ inches (21 x 18.5 cm) Friends of the Asian Art Association 1986.185

Totoya Hokkei, a student of the well-known ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai, was a fish seller who changed his profession to become a successful designer of privately published woodblock prints (surimono). This print depicts a woman painting a dragon that comes to life, rising from her fan in a trail of clouds, and was probably inspired by legends of early Chinese painters who mastered this astonishing feat. It is likely that this work was commissioned by a poetry club or a literary society in 1832, the year of the water dragon.

Water Vessel Korea, Koryo period, 1200s bronze, 14 inches (35.6 cm) high Gift of Dr. Robert Rinden by exchange 1971.5

Vessels of this type, commonly used to hold water, have their origins in the kundika carried by Buddhist monks in India since ancient times. The narrow mouth of a kundika served to sprinkle water for purification rites. Korean paintings of the Koryo period (918-1392) show that water vessels like this were made in varying shapes and sizes and served both ritual and utilitarian functions.

Family of Tigers Korea, Choson period, 1600sink and color on paper, 23 x 14⅝ inches (58.4 x 37.1 cm)Anonymous gift1995.250

Now extinct, the Korean tiger was admired for its strength and independent spirit. In earlier centuries, paintings of tigers were displayed in Korean homes to celebrate the New Year. These images were intended to ward off evil spirits and served as guardians for the family household during the year ahead.

Avalokiteshvara Thailand, Prasat Hin Khao Plai Bat II cache site, 700s bronze, 21 inches (53.3 cm) high Funds from the Marion G. Hendrie Endowment Trust, Jan and Frederick Mayer, Barbara Mack McKay, Jane B. McCotter, Edith M. Daley, JRH-1 1982 Charitable Trust, Mr. and Mrs. Bowers Holt, Tweet Kimball, Walabis, Dr. and Mrs. Marshall A. Freedman, Bombay Club Benefit, Lisle L. Bradley, James Mills, Mr. and Mrs. Yale H. Lewis, Margaret F. Polak, Dr. and Mrs. John A. Fleming, Elizabeth B. Labrot, Asian Art Association, and the Pan-Asian Collection Fund 1983.14

The small figure of Amitabha Buddha in the hair of this image identifies it as Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion. Usually, bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara wear elaborate jewelry and crowns, but those found at the Prasat Hin Khao Plai Bat II cache site in northeast Thailand appear with short garments wrapped around the waist, in contrast to Buddhas, who are shown in long robes that cover the entire body.

Goddess of Transcendent Wisdom, Prajnaparamita Cambodia, Angkor period, late 1100s–early 1200s sandstone, 59 inches (130 cm) high Purchased in honor of Emma C. Bunker with funds from Collectors' Choice 2000, the Sam F. and Freda Davis Charitable Trust and the following donors: Mary Ellen and Todger Anderson, an anonymous donor, Sue Anschutz-Rodgers, Deanna and H. Gregory Austin, Jr., Wann S. Caron, Coors Brewing Co., Mr. and Mrs. Cortlandt S. Dietler, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis B. Douglas, Jr., J. D. Edwards and Co., Forest Oil Corp., Diane and Charles Gallagher Family Funds, Mr. and Mrs. Frederic C. Hamilton, Arlene and A. Barry Hirschfeld, Holland and Hart, Holme Roberts and Owen, Bob and Sharon Magness Foundation, Kalleen and Bob Malone, Jan and Frederick Mayer, Miller Global Properties, Carol and Larry A. Mizel, Trygve and Vicki Myhren Foundation, Susan and Howard Noble, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas A. Petrie, Mrs. Nicholas Petry, Qwest Communications, Reiman Charitable Trust Foundation, Inc., Marcia and Richard Robinson, Barbara and George Schmitt, Alice and W. Thomas Stephens, Tremont Corp., Jack A. Vickers Foundation, and Estelle Wolf-Flowe Foundation 2000.198

Prajnaparamita is the Buddhist Goddess of Transcendent Wisdom. This standing figure is one of a few surviving Prajnaparamita images that purport to be a likeness of Queen Jayarajadevi, the first wife of King Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181–1218). The gentle smile and lowered eyes are features associated with sculptures from the Bayon temple built by Jayavarman VII, the last great ruler of the Angkor royal line.

Life of the Buddha Thailand, 1800s color on cloth, 124 x 84 inches (3.15 x 2.13 m) Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John B. Bunker in honor of Ronald Otsuka 2001.893

This large painting depicts scenes from the life of the Buddha, including his departure from his palace while his family is asleep.

Qur'an Leaf in Kufic Script North Africa, 850–950 gold on blue vellum, 8¾ x 12½ inches (22.2 x 31.8 cm) Bj Averitt Islamic Art Fund 1999.78

This leaf is from a famous Qur’an, Islam's holiest book, written in gold on blue vellum. Most of this luxurious Qur'an is in Tunis at the Museum of Islamic Art, National Institute of Archaeology and the Arts, but a few leaves have found their way into museums, libraries, and private collections. This Qur'an was perhaps ma]de for the library of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia.

Bowl with Horseman Iran, Nishapur, 900s glazed earthenware, 8½ inches (21.6 cm) diameter Museum exchange 1967.93

Nishapur, in northeastern Persia, was once a thriving cosmopolitan city on the east-west trade route between China and the Mediterranean. The brown, green, and yellow underglaze on this bowl probably reflects the popularity of Chinese ceramics of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), which have been found there. Though Arab Muslims were ruling the area by 900, their prohibition against using images did not interfere with this potter’s splendid depiction of a mounted horseman on a hunting expedition.

Calligraphy Iran, Qajar Period, 1894 ink and opaque colors on paper, 12¼ x 7½ inches (31 x 19 cm) Edna Hadley Collection 1968.31

This page of Farsi calligraphy is written in fine nasta'liq script and signed by the calligrapher Imad al-Husaini. The inscription in the center of the lower border indicates that this work was commissioned by the Governor of Khurasan and Sistan for the shrine of Imam Rida, for which he served as trustee. The border is in the ornate Qajar period style with roses and nightingales in the decoration.

Shiva and Parvati, Seated in Embrace Nepal, Thakuri dynasty, 900s–1000s limestone, 29 inches (74.9 cm) high Harold P. and Jane F. Ullman Collection, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Edwin F. Ullman 1980.231

Following a tradition established in India, this Nepalese sculpture (Uma-Maheshvaramurti) depicts a divine family group: the Hindu god Shiva, his wife, their children, and various attendants. Resembling the shape of Kailasa, Shiva's mountain home in the Himalayas, the figures are unified in a composition with the curved sides of the relief forming a central peak.

Geshe Thubten Sonam (born 1965, Dharamsala, India), Sonam Woeser (born 1964, Laab, Eastern Tibet; in India 1990), and Lobsang Lungrig (born 1974, Karshoe, Eastern Tibet; in India 1994) Hayagriva Mandala United States, 1996 sand with mineral pigments, 57 inches (144.8 cm) diameter Asian Art Association, Mr. and Mrs. Yale H. Lewis, NBT Foundation, Fay Shwayder, and Asian Art Department Acquisition Fund 1996.54

Brush Holder with Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove China, Qing dynasty, 1700s bamboo, 5½ inches (14 cm) high, 6 inches (15.2 cm) diameter Lutz Bamboo Collection, gift of Adelle Lutz and David Byrne 2004.829

In China, bamboo objects are well suited for a scholar's studio. A section of culm, or stalk, can be cut to form a brush holder. Scholars’ objects are often carved with literary and historic subjects like the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group of men who enjoyed poetry, music, alcohol, and freedom from court politics.

Jesse and Nellie Shwayder Galleries, William Sharpless Jackson Jr. Gallery, Walter + Mona Lutz Gallery & Bj Averitt Gallery, Level 5, North Building

The Denver Art Museum's Asian art collection originated in 1915 with a donation of Chinese and Japanese art objects from a single passionate collector and has broadened to include works from the entire Asian continent. Spanning a period from the fourth millennium B.C. to the present, these objects illustrate the wide-ranging achievements of Asian artists and artisans.

The William Sharpless Jackson Jr. Gallery provides visitors with the opportunity to explore particular aspects of Asian art in greater depth. It features changing exhibitions drawn from the museum's extensive holdings and guest exhibitions from other Asian art collections.

Displays of bamboo art from China, Japan, and Korea are shown in the Walter + Mona Lutz Gallery, a space dedicated exclusively for artwork made of bamboo. The Lutz Bamboo Collection became a family love affair, and the Denver Art Museum is the fortunate recipient of more than 900 gifts from three generations of the Lutz family—Walter and Mona, Tina and Michael Chow, Adelle Lutz and David Byrne, China Chow, Maximilian Chow, and Malu Byrne.

The Bj Averitt Gallery features art from Southwest Asia, including examples from the Anatolian and Arabian peninsulas, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Objects in the gallery represent many millennia of art, beginning with the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, and following the flourishing and growth of Islam to the present day. Regions where this culture spread, such as Africa, Southern Europe, and Southeast Asia, also are represented.

Select publications by or about the Asian art department include:

  • Xu Beihong: Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting. Ronald Y. Otsuka and Fangfang Xu. Denver Art Museum, 2011.
  • Full Frontal: Contemporary Asian Artists from the Logan Collection. Ronald Y. Otsuka, Tom J. Whitten, and Kent Logan. Denver Art Museum, 2003.
  • Adornment for Eternity: Status and Rank in Chinese Ornament. Julie M. White, Emma C. Bunker, and Chen Peifen. Denver Art Museum in association with the Woods Publishing Company, 1994.
  • Pathways to the Afterlife: Early Chinese Art from the Sze Hong Collection. Julia M. White and Ronald Y. Otsuka. Denver Art Museum in association with University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

In 1915 Walter C. Mead pledged his Asian art collection to the people of Denver in 1915 and prompted the Denver Art Museum to include Asian art in its representation of world art. The Mead Collection was first exhibited at the Denver Museum of Natural History and transferred to the Denver Art Museum's new galleries in the Denver City and County Building in 1932–33. In 1937, Mead sold the remainder of his collection—-including several thousand Asian art objects—to the Denver Art Museum for the nominal sum of one dollar. Beginning in 1946, a series of gifts from Harry B. Goodwin and his wife, Mary Guthrie Goodwin helped establish the museum's collection of South and Southeast Asian art.

Current Staff

  • Tianlong Jiao, Joseph de Heer Curator of Asian Art
  • Douglas R. Wagner, Curatorial Assistant
  • Patty Williams, Interpretive Specialist
  • Mary Davis, Curator's Circle Coordinator
  • Chelsea Finical, Provenance Research Assistant

Past Staff

  • Ronald Y. Otsuka, Curator Emeritus, Dr. Joseph de Heer Curator of Asian Art 1973-2014