Into the Unknown: Theodore Bowie and “The Arts of Thailand”

Theodore R. Bowie, an art historian known for his work in what was at the time an underrepresented field – the history of Asian art- wore many hats during his time at Indiana University. A newly acquired and now-processed collection of Bowie’s papers containing a large number of photographs, letters, lecture notes, publications, and preparatory documents for perhaps the largest undertaking of his career, i.e. a 1960 exhibition named “The Arts of Thailand,” has allowed me a peek into the life of this prolific academic. Partially complete drafts of his memoir paint an inspiring picture of the man whose unflinching eagerness for professional involvement, passion for learning and travel, and unwavering confidence managed to bring the art of Thailand to the United States for the first time in history.

Cover of the softcover catalog for the 1960 opening of “The Arts of Thailand”

Originally educated and trained in the study of French literature, Bowie first displayed the nimbleness with which he moved through his career, throughout a multitude of academic positions and areas of expertise, when he moved into the discipline of art history. Bowie joined the Art Department as an associate professor at Indiana University in 1950. His relative lack of background in the field made him an uncertain candidate for tenure. Noticing his supervisor’s hesitancy in granting tenure, Bowie suggested his own installation as a librarian and guardian of the department’s new Fine Arts Library, a position which provided the ambitious and optimistic professor the opportunity to become involved in curating.

After mounting five shows dealing with the arts of Japan and China, in 1955 Bowie was approached by Henry Radford Hope on behalf of then-president Herman B Wells asking for a show demonstrating the art of Thailand. This request for a Thai art show came at a time when IU was one of multiple state schools participating in an exchange program with the Southeast Asian country. American universities sent faculty in a variety of disciplines and their families to Thailand for eighteen to twenty-four months and, in turn, Thailand sent undergraduate and graduate students to study at its partner universities. Bowie agreed to take on the immense task, despite having no knowledge of Thai art. After inquiring with the National Gallery in DC as a location to inaugurate the show, he was met with a polite but firm “no.” Although “The Arts of Thailand” would go on to travel to a number of large internationally recognized museums across the US, Western Europe, and Japan, contributing institutions agreed that the show would open, for the first time, in Bloomington, Indiana in 1960.

Promotional material for “The Arts of Thailand” at Indiana University.

For Bowie, the formation of his selection committee was critical in facing the large task that now confronted him. He brought on Kojiro Tomita, a specialist in Japanese art from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Alexander Griswold, an archaeologist and paleologist specializing in South Asian art; and Prince Subhadradis Diskul, the curator in chief of the national museum in Bangkok, to assist him in the project and teach him the ins and outs of Thai art. One of the few rules Bowie had in organizing the show was that none of the works were to be on loan from dealers, but rather from personal collections. A large number of the pieces featured, therefore, ended up coming from the collections of the Thai royal family. Bowie writes in his memoirs of the collectors hesitancy to let their best pieces travel, a cautiousness which was remedied by both Griswold’s personal connections and Bowie’s assertion that if Thailand wanted the global exhibition of its art to be on par with those of its East Asian neighbors, he would only accept the best.

Once the loans of the nearly three hundred and fifty works of art, many of which were large sculptural pieces, were secured, Bowie employed a Thai photographer to document them for the catalog. One of Bowie’s biggest challenges with the exhibition was transportation of the loaned pieces. As the show traveled around the world, Bowie was effectively responsible for each piece’s safety for the entire two years for which it toured. The pieces were stored in crates made from native Thai teakwood. During the entire duration of the shows global lifespan, the items were packed or unpacked over twenty times. Transported by large naval ships, the crates had to be stored on the top decks and protected from the elements, as opposed to in the more enclosed holds. This unique accommodation was necessitated by the sacred nature of a number of the items and the belief that to stand or walk above or on an image of the Buddha was sacrilegious. The Thai curators who accompanied the works abroad had never had the experience of traveling works of art across continents, and these logistical considerations provided additional job training and experience for them.

Pieces for the exhibition being transported using ships belonging to the US Navy.

On a local level, Bowie was confronted with the complication that what would become the IU Art Museum was still under construction (part of the present day Fine Arts Building)– a problem which he solved by creating a dynamic show spread across three locations: IU’s Auditorium, The Lilly Library, and the Art Center Gallery (what is now the Grunwald Gallery). The unconventional settings, although facilitating greater access and public engagement, presented security concerns, as the various locations were not equipped with surveillance or guards. The safety of the Thai art work was ensured, however, by a detachment of university ROTC officers who provided twenty-four hour security. The Auditorium held sculptures from a variety of periods, with many of the larger pieces having to be displayed on the floor because of their weight. The Art Center Gallery displayed paintings from the collection of the King of Thailand and theatrical masks, while the Lilly featured displays of Thai books, manuscripts, and richly decorated lacquer cabinets. A number of the visitors to these exhibition areas would have, on their way to other events on campus, stumbled across lobbies for the three exhibition areas decorated in vibrant silks and been enticed to stay and linger with the treasured pieces on display. Well-received by students, faculty, and administrators at IU “The Arts of Thailand” would prove to be a huge success with audiences throughout its two year run, and inspired both a film of the same name and a follow-up exhibition, “The Sculpture of Thailand,” in the 1970s. Recently digitized, the film is part of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive and can be accessed here through Media Collections Online.

“Thai Arts Exhibition,” 1960 in the Art Center Gallery (now the Grunwald)

“The Arts of Thailand” was a massive undertaking for its time, fraught with a number of obstacles which Bowie seemed to blithely address in stride. Describing his mindset in undertaking the show, Bowie wrote:

 “I had hoped to talk about it to Henry [Radford Hope] and Herman B Wells, but alas Henry is gone and I will never know whether the thought had occurred to him that here was a non-existent museum, represented by a little known member of his Art Department who was not an authority on anything and had published nothing, who was generally (and loosely ) familiar with Far Eastern Art  but totally ignorant of Thai art, proceeding as an equal with some of the most important museums in the country to bring to this country and circulate a large collection of works of art of all kinds, easily deserving because of the scale and quantity of objects of the term “blockbuster,” …The odd thing is that at [the] time in question, about 1959, I was not in the least fazed by those duties that I had not applied for. I was, however, certain that I could carry it out as expected and never lose any sleep over the matter”

As an aspiring curator and a student pursuing my master’s in art history, the discovery of the life of Ted Bowie has been timely. Coming to the field of art history with, as a former studio major, what felt like less background than my cohort, was daunting. As I am again veering off in a different direction, away from academia and, hopefully, into the field of curating, I often find myself riddled with uncertainty. Starting the grueling process of applying for jobs, I find myself doubting my qualifications. Coming across Bowie’s words, and researching his life, one which progressed not in a straight and proscribed line, but in a joyous meander driven by his passions and ambitions, I am reminded that, perhaps, it is good to wear a few hats throughout one’s lifetime. Bowie’s brazen self-confidence has come as a perfect rallying cry, a reminder to question not whether we are capable, but rather what things we might be capable of.

An undated portrait of Bowie found in his personal archive – The Theodore Bowie Papers

The Big Apple Comes to Blooming-town : Part II

See Part 1 of this blog series at

Drum roll please… For those of you who’ve ever taken an introductory Art History course, you’ll understand why I got so excited to uncover that our small town in Indiana was for approximately two months in 1948 the temporary home to 30 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s masterpieces, including works by Rubens, Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco and Bonheur (see complete inventory below). Many of these works even today hang on the gallery walls of the museum.

Indianapolis Star Magazine, April 18, 1948

Upon arrival in Bloomington (by way of the Dallas Museum of Fine Art and the State University of Iowa), the university immediately overtook responsibility for the security of the precious cargo. The crates were transported by University truck to the Auditorium where they were unloaded at the south scenery entrance to the main stage.They remained in storage on the stage until they were unpacked and hung by personnel furnished by the Metropolitan.

Lawrence Wheeler (left), watches Metropolitan Museum experts Elmer Miller and Henry Stone uncrate “Virgin and Child” by Rubens

Judging from the reports, it appears that the uncrating and installation of the exhibition went off without a hitch, aside for some humorous anecdotes surrounding Rosa Bonheur’s (8 x 16 1/2 foot) “Horse Fair.” According to the May issue of the Indiana Alumni Magazine it “took a dozen of them [University workers] more than a half-hour of grunting, sweating and tugging to maneuver the big “Horse Fair” out the end door of the railroad car. Loaded

Uncrating the “Horse Fair”

onto the truck, it stuck out four feet from the tailgate.” When it came time for installation, according to the Lawrence Wheeler’s April 23, 1948 column in the Star-Courier, the enormous painting was apparently uncrated in the scenery room back stage and then carried out through the big doors near the stage along the street adjacent to the Auditorium. Said Wheeler, “Some twelve men were handling the picture. Everything went well until the turn had to be made toward the front door of the Auditorium.

Metropolitan staff members Elmer Miller and Henry Stone, among others hang “The Horse Fair”

There the wind caught the big surface and it was touch and go for a minute as to whether the horses wouldn’t become air minded and sail off down wind toward the B. and E. building.” (“B. and E.” = Business and Economics, or present-day Woodburn Hall.) These stories certainly do add to the humor and drama of those minutes! Once back inside, Met staff members re-framed the canvas, as the large canvas had to travel without its frame.

Paintings under guard in a storage room below the seating area of the Auditorium



The security of the treasures was of the upmost concern. Campus police, under the direction of Don Kooken and Fred Cogshall, and ROTC upperclassmen under orders from Col. J.E. Graham, mounted a 24-hour armed guard of the priceless paintings. According to a March 25 memorandum outlining the arrangements and responsibilities for the various parties involved, “Five men from Pershing Rifles and/or ROTC will stand armed watches during normal exhibit hours. Additional men will be used during public programs. The Safety Department is to provide armed night protection.” Obviously, the university administration took the position as temporary caretakers of the paintings quite seriously!

30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – April 18 through May 16, 1948

The exhibition opened to great fanfare – newspaper coverage flooded the Indiana Daily Student and the local and state papers. According to reports, on the opening Sunday of the exhibition, several hundred people waited outside the Auditorium for the doors to open and a reported nearly 4,000 saw the exhibition on that day alone.

Crowd waiting to see paintings, April 18, 1948

Over the course of the coming weeks grade school children, social organizations, religious and family groups, farmers and businessman flocked from near and far to see the 30 masterpieces outside of New York City. The May 1948 Indiana Alumni Magazine reported an anecdote about one young student visiting with his grade school class. While standing in front of “The Horse Fair”, he wrinkled up his nose and stated: “Not only do they look like real horses, they smell like horses, too.” University professors of literature, history, art and music used the paintings as the subject matter for their lectures; Fine Arts Department faculty provided special lectures and tours and students from the School of Music, under the direction of Dean Bain, provided Renaissance period music to serve as the backdrop to the display of 14th through 18th centuries artwork.

The full list of paintings included in the exhibition are below and where possible, links are provided to each object in Metropolitan Museum of Art database. Make special note of the number of paintings which are currently on view and their locations!

  1. GIOVANNI DI PAOLO, Presentation at the Temple
  2. FRA FILIPPO LIPPI, The Annunciation
  3. DOMENICO GHIRLANDAIO, Portrait of a Lady of the Sassetti Family
  4. GIOVANNI BELLINI, Madonna and Child
  5. CARLO CRIVELLI, The Pieta
  6. AMBROGIO DE PREDIS, Girl with Cherries
  7. COSIMO TURA, Saint Louis of Toulouse
  8. FRANCIA, Madonna and Child with St. Francis and St. Jerome
  9. TITIAN, Portrait of Doge Andrea Gritti
  10. TINTORETTO, Portrait of Benedetto Varchi
  11. MORONI, Portrait of the Prioress Lucretia Cataneo
  12. SALVATOR ROSA, Portrait of the Artist
  13. LUCAS CRANACH, Judith with the Head of Holofernes
  14. FOLLOWER OF JAN VAN EYCK, Portrait of a Man
  15. QUENTIN MASSYS, Portrait of a Man
  16. JOOS VAN CLEVE, The Last Judgement
  17. FOLLOWER OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH, Christ’s Descent into Hell
  18. PIETER BRUEGHEL THE YOUNGER, Gamblers Quarreling
  19. PETER PAUL RUBENS, Virgin and Child
  20. ANTHONY VAN DYCK, Portrait of a Man
  21. FRANS HALS, Malle Babbe (The Witch)
  22. REMBRANDT VAN RIJN, Portrait of an Admiral
  23. REMBRANDT VAN RIJN, Portrait of an Admiral’s Wife
  24. GABRIEL METSU,  The Artist and His Wife
  25. SALOMON VAN RUYSDAEL, River Scene with Castle
  26. JAN DAVIDSZ DE HEEM, Still Life
  27. JAN VAN DER HEYDEN, A Street Scene in Delft
  28. EL GRECO, The Adoration of the Shepherds
  29. GOYA, Dona Narcisa Baranana De Giocoechea
  30. ROSA BONHEUR, The Horse Fair

According to the final reports, the show brought 69,900 individuals to the Auditorium with no final cost to the University. While the University was responsible for transportation, insurance and security, Dr. and Mrs. Henry Hope provided a generous gift of $3,000 to cover the majority of the expenses. Sales of the printed catalogues resulted in an additional $1,453 which covered the full cost of the exhibition.

Following their brief stay in Bloomington, the 30 paintings traveled back to New York City where they again took their place upon the walls of the Metropolitan.

For more details about the exhibition, including correspondence, exhibition literature and additional photographs contact the IU Archives.

The Big Apple Comes to Blooming-town

In the spring of 1948, Henry R. Hope, chairman of the Fine Arts Department, in collaboration with the I.U. Foundation, pulled off a small miracle for the then sleepy town of Bloomington, Indiana and the campus of Indiana University, which was then home to only 11,414 students. The rapidly expanding and nationally recognized Fine Arts department as well as the recently completed campus Auditorium (1941), caught the attention of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which was in the process of organizing a traveling exhibition of some of its most famous paintings.

The introduction to the exhibition catalogue pointedly laid out the intent behind the Metropolitan traveling exhibition program and partnership with Indiana University:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art welcomes this opportunity to bring its treasures before the public of the Midwest. Since 1870 this Museum has pioneered in the cultural and artistic life of this continent. It has opened the door to three generations who have seen beyond it the broader horizons of our common past…

The Museum now has accumulated collections beyond, indeed, the capacity of its present buildings and the immediate needs of its metropolitan audience. Our duty and our opportunities lie in the nation at large where by sending exhibitions to other museums we may assist our colleagues in the common task of awakening Americans to the responsibilities of world leadership and the understanding between peoples.

We are grateful to Indiana University for its initiative and hospitality and hope this will be but the beginning of an exchange of people, ideas, and works of arts.

~Francis Henry Taylor (Metropolitan Director)

April 5, 1948

After great anticipation, at the beginning of April a special steel railroad car under special guard arrived in Bloomington via the Monon Railway, bearing, according to the Bloomington Star-Courier, “about a million and one quarters’ dollars worth of wood and canvas that has been decorated over a period of more than 400 years.”

Lawrence Wheeler (Director of the IU Foundation) and Henry R. Hope (Chair of the Fine Arts Dept.) inspecting the crates, April 5, 1948




Once unloaded, the crates were transported by truck to the south entrance of the Auditorium, where within days they would hang alongside the famous Thomas Hart Benton Murals.  Over the course of the coming weeks an estimated 70,000 individuals would flock to the halls of the auditorium to gaze upon the marvels, while numerous lectures, classes, musical performances, and public and private tours were held in conjunction.


Wondering by chance WHICH 30 famous Old Master paintings traveled to Bloomington? For that you’ll have to wait until next week for Part II of the story –  but I’ll just tell you that it gave this art nerd goosebumps! 😉