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Frame by Frame

From an artful pitcher, a bitter sip of history

Müller porcelin work reveals a racism of the era

Karl L.H. Müller’s beer pitcher, which is exhibited in the new wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Karl L.H. Müller’s beer pitcher, which is exhibited in the new wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / December 21, 2010

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It was only on about my 13th visit to the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts that I noticed this pitcher. It was made around 1876 and would have been used to serve beer in a bar. It’s a funny old object, neither the most beautiful, the most coherent, nor, by modern standards, the most tasteful object in the museum. But it’s a reminder of how art, literature, social history, and popular culture can all overlap in the strangest ways — and how the most unlikely object can reverberate with surprising intensity in the present. The pitcher was designed by Karl L.H. Müller for the Union Porcelain Works, at a time when porcelain manufacturing in the United States was just beginning to boom. Its handle seems to have been modeled into a polar bear and its spout into some kind of walrus. On one side, in low relief, the vessel shows the figure of King Gambrinus, the mythical king of beer, introducing this wondrous amber fluid to Brother Jonathan, a symbol of America (a kind of early prototype of Uncle Sam). It’s all very jolly. But the other side is perhaps more interesting. It illustrates the main episode from an 1870 poem by Bret Harte. Known (offensively to our ears) as ‘‘The Heathen Chinee,’’ it was first published as ‘‘Plain Language From Truthful James.’’ It became a sensation and made Harte the most celebrated writer in the country that year. It tells the story of a Chinese man, Ah Sin (very subtle), who was caught cheating at cards and received a violent comeuppance from the miner Bill Nye. That’s also what the pitcher illustrates: Nye prepares to go at Ah Sin with a knife, as cards spill from the latter’s sleeve onto the floor. It’s hard, reading the poem today, to know what to make of it. The MFA states in its wall label that it was ‘‘a satire of the prejudice faced by Chinese immigrant laborers in the West.’’ Unfortunately, Harte’s satire backfired when the majority of the poem’s early readers took it literally as a condemnation of Chinese treachery. Harte later disowned the poem. He called it ‘‘the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote.’’ It’s doubtful whether this pitcher was in on the satire. Certainly, as is made clear in a fascinating essay by MFA curators Nonie Gadsden and Elliot Bostwick Davis in ‘‘A New World Imagined: Art of the Americas,’’ it was made at a time when anti-Chinese racism was on the rise. It was Chinese tea, of course, that Colonists dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773. So after achieving independence from Britain, Americans were eager to reach out to the Chinese as trading partners. A successful partnership was quickly established. But a few decades down the track, the luxury goods with which China had until then been associated began to be replaced by cheap, expendable goods — trinkets, fans, and fireworks. The Opium Wars and the influx of Chinese immigrants during the gold rush soured the relationship further, and suspicious, resentful attitudes began to prevail. Harte’s poem, against his wishes, helped define and entrench those attitudes. Those anti-immigrant sentiments seem to be making a comeback of late. The violence in Harte’s poem is preceded by a description of Nye realizing he is being cheated: ‘‘And he rose with a sigh,/ And said, ‘Can this be?/ We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor,’/ And he went for that heathen Chinee.’’ Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

PITCHER Karl L. H. Müller, Union Porcelain Works At: Museum of Fine Arts. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org