Advisor to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section, Tokyo
A specialist in Asian art, Sickman served as an army combat officer during World War II, dealing with Intelligence in the Pacific theater. In 1945, he advised the MFAA section at General MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo.
Sickman became interested in Asian art at an early age, and studied Chinese languages and Eastern art while at Harvard. He was graduated in 1930, and received a Harvard-Yenching Fellowship to study and travel throughout China. While in China, Sickman was reunited with his former professor, Langdon Warner, who was acquiring art for the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City. Langdon Warner would also go onto to become a Monuments Man in the Pacific. The Nelson Gallery named him as Warner’s assistant in 1931: he remained in China to purchase art. The two often disagreed, nevertheless Sickman managed to make some outstanding acquisitions. Many were from the collection of Chinese emperor Pu Yi, the last monarch of the Qing Dynasty. When he fled Peking in 1924, the emperor took much of his personal collection with him, which he readily sold because he was “much more interested in his new Japanese motorcycle.” Sickman also acquired the ceiling from the Ch’ih’hua Temple in Peking, dating from 1444. He was named curator of Oriental art in 1935, and was credited with amassing one of the greatest Asian art collections in the United States. As a curator, Sickman was a proponent of exhibiting art in its true context, so he displayed works of art along with furniture and decorative pieces.
He returned to the museum after his MFAA service, and was subsequently named director in 1953. As director, Sickman also expanded other areas of the museum, hiring scholars of American and European art, as well as Ancient art and European decorative arts. He acquired exquisite pieces such as Rodin’s Adam,
, Monet’s Water Lilies
and Boulevard des Capucines
, Degas’ The Ballet Rehearsal
, de Kooning’s Woman IV
, as well as works by Rothko, Pollock, and Warhol. Sickman continued to add to the museum’s Asian art collection, and due to his expertise in the area, the blockbuster exhibition “Archaeological Finds of the People’s Republic of China” was brought to the Nelson-Atkins. The 385-piece show was the result of a political détente between the United States and China. Following his retirement in 1977, his successor Ralph T. Coe presented “Hills and Valleys Within: Laurence Sickman and the Oriental Collection” as a tribute to Sickman’s contribution to the museum.