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Stephen Allee Retires from the National Museum of Asian Art

Photo courtesy of Erna Marcus

In June Stephen Allee retired from his 34-year long career at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, where he served as associate curator of Chinese paintings and calligraphy since 2012. Whether specialist or casual visitor, in person or as a reader, everyone who has engaged with the museum's renowned collection of Chinese paintings and calligraphy benefitted profoundly from Allee's exhibitions, online and print publications, illuminating wall labels, copious translations, enriching talks, and behind-the-scenes research, explication, and organization. Allee has also been deeply generous with and shared access to and information about objects in the collection to an unrivaled degree.

Stephen Allee's training and extraordinary abilities are as a linguist. In addition to studying classical and modern Chinese, especially ancient poetry, he also mastered Russian, Icelandic, and Old Norse. Building on his learning of the Chinese language that began in his teens, Allee studied ancient Chinese language and literature at George Washington University and the University of Washington. In 1978 he was one of the eight who were the first American graduate students to study in mainland China since 1949, and he spent a year-and-a-half focused on spoken Chinese, as well as classical Chinese literature and history, especially fifth-century poetry, at the University of Nanjing.

Allee's career at the NMAA began in 1988, and during those early years he worked under curators Fu Shen and then Joseph Chang and focused primarily on object research and documentation, as well as exhibitions. Since 2012 he has been responsible for all curatorial responsibilities for the museum's Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

Stephen Allee discusses Chinese paintings with interns at the NMAA. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Asian Art.

The list of exhibitions in which Allee was involved during his long career are far too numerous to list. A few highlights are Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty in 2016, In Pursuit of Heavenly Harmony: Paintings and Calligraphy by Bada Shanren (1626–1705) from the Collection of Wang Fangyu and Sum Wai in 2003, and Brushing the Past: Later Chinese Calligraphy from the Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in 2001. Similarly Allee has written and contributed to myriad publications, including the online publication Song and Yuan Dynasty Painting and Calligraphy in 2010, the three-volume Contemporary Calligraphy and Paintings from the Republic of China in 1990, as well as the catalogues for the above exhibitions. Recently Allee contributed in Chinese the conference paper “Observations Regarding Dong Qichang’s Authentications on Seven Song Dynasty Works in the Freer Gallery of Art” and the catalogue entry “Qiu Ying, A Donkey for Mister Zhu” to the Shanghai Museum's 2019 project The Ferryman of Ink World: Dong Qichang's Calligraphy and Painting Art.

Looking ahead, Allee plans to focus more on research, with several studies of important paintings in the NMAA's collection in process. He also anticipates traveling, usually at a more leisurely pace that allows more time for deeper study. A generous teacher, Allee also hopes to participate in educational projects in which he can share the rich wealth of knowledge and experience that he has accumulated and to which we all eagerly look forward.