Laurence Chalfant Stevens Sickman (1906-1988)
Scholar and connoisseur of Chinese art, Laurence Chalfant Stevens Sickman was born in Denver, Colorado on August 27, 1906. He first discovered his passion for Chinese art and language during high school and further pursued the subject at Harvard University. At Harvard, he studied under Langdon Warner, the renowned professor and curator of Asian art at the Fogg Museum of Art. After his graduation from Harvard in 1930 he traveled extensively in China as a Harvard-Yenching Fellow.
During this time, Sickman reconnected with Warner, who was in China purchasing works of art for the newly-established William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City, Missouri (today, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art following its renaming in 1933). Impressed by Sickman’s knowledge of Chinese art and language, Warner took the young scholar under his wing. Sickman accompanied Warner to the greatest galleries and antiquaries in China. The pair acquired for the museum the Northern Wei period relief known as The Empress as Donor, with Attendants, then regarded as the greatest masterpiece of Chinese sculpture. After Warner’s return to the United States, Sickman continued collecting. He made several trips to China during the 1930s, acquiring items from the collection of Chinese emperor Pu Yi, the last monarch of the Qing Dynasty, as well as the ceiling from the Ch’ih’hua Temple in Peking, dating from 1444. He was named Curator of Oriental Art in 1935, and is credited with transforming the Nelson-Atkins into one of the greatest Asian art collections in the United States. His unique curatorial style included displaying fine works of art along with furniture and decorative pieces, which he believed revealed the art in its true context.
Sickman took a leave of absence from the Nelson-Atkins to enlist in the U.S. Army in May 1942. He served first in the 38th Fighter Squadron of the 55thFighter Group, U.S. Army Air Corps, and later as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer in China. In August 1945 he was selected for service with the Arts and Monuments Division of the Civil Information and Education Section of General headquarters of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) in Tokyo, Japan. The Arts and Monuments Division functioned as the Far Eastern office of the MFAA in the Pacific Theater. Sickman was recommended for the position by his friends and former colleagues, Monuments Men Lt. Cdr. George Stout and Langdon Warner. He arrived at headquarters in Tokyo in early December 1945. His first assignment took him to Korea, where he inspected museums and cultural monuments. While he spent most of his time in China, he maintained close relations with headquarters in Tokyo. His fluency in Chinese, combined with his extensive network of contacts, made him exceptionally well-qualified to inspect the state of arts and monuments in China.
Sickman left Asia in October 1946 and returned to the Nelson-Atkins Museum. He was subsequently named Director in April 1953. In addition to his continued efforts to develop the museum’s Asian art collection, Sickman also expanded other areas of the museum. He hired scholars of American and European art to curate an ever-growing collection of works by such notable artists as Rodin, Monet, Degas, de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock, and Warhol, among other greats. Even so, Sickman’s true passion remained with Chinese art. In December 1974 the museum welcomed the exhibition, “Archaeological Finds of the People’s Republic of China.” The 385-piece show was the result of a political détente between the United States and China, and a testament to Sickman’s resourcefulness.Following his retirement in 1977, his successor, Ralph T. Coe, presented the exhibition “Hills and Valleys Within: Laurence Sickman and the Oriental Collection,” a tribute to Sickman’s twenty-five-year contribution to the museum.
Laurence Sickman died on May 7, 1988 in Kansas City, Missouri.