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A Magnificent Lacquer Plaque by Shibata Zeshin
Property from the Collection of Sakamoto Goro
SHIBATA ZESHIN - GENIUS LACQUERER OF IMPERIAL JAPAN
Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) studied the art of lacquering under the great maker of inro, Koma Kansai II (1767-1835) from the age of eleven. He later studied painting in the studio of Suzuki Nanrei (1775-1844) who seems to have been fond of him and gave him the familiar name Reisai. Nanrei also gave him the names he is well known by - Zeshin, Tanzan and Rensai. He worked also with the colour print artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1862). Zeshin became quite a celebrity in Edo with his varied repertoire of popular subjects and depiction of everyday customs. He was a skilled lacquer artist and painter in the Shijo and Rinpa styles, and introduced the technique of painting with lacquer on paper to give a three dimensional effect. His range of colours and textures was unsurpassed. Zeshin made a speciality of sabiage, a lacquer surface simulating corrosion. He often used a fine comb to produce sea waves in the lacquer surface while it was still in its liquid state. Zeshin made a range of lacquer work following the earlier style of Ogawa Haritsu imitating the various materials which Haritsu used as inlay, like pottery, lead and coral, all with his varied coloured and textured lacquer. His pictorial work, like the present panel, had a vivid three-dimensionality emphasised by the hue of differing sizes and textures of inlay, including maki-e with gold and silver.
Zeshin was firmly established as a popular artist in the Edo period and he saw the transformation of Japan from a feudal society ruled by the samurai to a Western democracy under the Emperor Meiji. His Edo period work so fashionable in Japan made a great impact in the West, and established a ready market for his later great lacquer works.
He was among the select craftsmen to help with the conservation of the 8th century lacquer collection in the Shosoin repository of the Todaiji temple in Nara in 1875. In 1876 he was appointed as an examiner in the Kangyoryo [Bureau for Industrial Promotion]. Then in the following year he won the Ryumon-sho [dragon prize] with his panel of an agricultural hut among fields. The Meiji Emperor was an enthusiastic patron of Zeshin, and the Imperial Household bought the panel. He made a number of such panels with sculpted lacquer in high relief on wood like the present piece. His first major piece in this format was probably the prize-winning panel with Mount Fuji viewed from Tagonoura, which was shown at the 1873 International Exposition in Vienna. A panel of a lobster on wave-splashed rocks by Zeshin was sold in these rooms Lot 82 in the sale ‘Asobi - Ingenious Creativity’ on 15th October 2014. That panel was exhibited in 1890 at the Third Domestic Industrial Exposition at Ueno, Tokyo, where it was awarded the Myogi Itto Sho [First Prize for Exquisite Technique]. A most similar example of Zeshin’s work with lobsters was bought by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, Economy, Trade and Industry in 1888, and exhibited at the Expositione Universelle de Paris in 1889, receiving the Gold Medal, but was lost in the Taisho earthquake of 1923. Four further panels are preserved in the Professor David Khalili collection.