The Genius of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin

Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891)

At the close of Japan’s early modern era, Shibata Zeshin brought the art of lacquering to unmatched levels of technical skill and creative invention. From an early age he not only applied himself to mastering the meticulous processes of traditional lacquering, but also set about acquiring a more general artistic and cultural education. In fact, he was at first better known as a painter than as a lacquer artist, and was catapulted to fame in 1840 by his depiction of the Ibaraki Demon, a sketch for which is illustrated at the bottom of this page and displayed at the entrance to the exhibition
Later in the 1840s, Zeshin invented daring new lacquer textures and finishes that mimicked rusty iron, rough seas, enameled porcelain, patinated bronze, or the delicate grain of Chinese rosewood. In the 1870s he also perfected the art of painting with black and colored lacquer on paper, an aspect of his work that is represented by many outstanding examples in the collection of Catherine and Thomas Edson.

Box for tea-ceremony utensils, with dandelions, mare’s-tail, and vetch, about 1860–90. Lacquered wood, 5 x 6 1/8 x 3 1/2 in. (12.8 x 15.7 x 8.9 cm). The Khalili Collection of Japanese Art.
The great majority of Zeshin’s surviving works date from the last three decades of his life, a period when Japan underwent dramatic social, economic, and cultural transformations following the overthrow of the samurai government and its replacement by a modernizing, westernizing regime with the Meiji Emperor as semi-constitutional monarch. During those years Zeshin produced a succession of masterpieces—in lacquered wood, lacquer painting, and painting in ink and colors—that attracted scores of prominent clients, earned him official honors, and made him one of the first living Japanese artists to achieve name recognition in Europe and the United States.

Joe Earle, Director, Japan Society Gallery

Set of stacked food boxes with harvest motifs, about 1860–90. Lacquered wood, 15 5/8 x 9 x 9 5/8 in. (39.6 x 22.8 x 24.4 cm). The Khalili Collection of Japanese Art.


Lacquer has played an important part in Japanese culture for more than two thousand years as a protective, decorative finish for items made from leather, wood, paper, bamboo, and metal. Japanese lacquer is harvested by cutting incisions in the bark of the lacquer tree (Rhus verniciflua) and allowing its sap to collect in containers fastened to the side of the tree. Once impurities have been strained and stirred out of the sap, it can be applied to a prepared surface using a spatula or brush. Under specific conditions of high humidity and temperature, the lacquer hardens to form a waterproof surface that can take a brilliant polish.

This process may sound simple, but lacquerwork is perhaps the most complex of all Japan’s traditional industries, demanding the combined skills of a host of specialist workers. Just to create a good black- or red-lacquer ground, as seen in the illustration opposite, requires at least thirty-three stages, including smoothing the wood base, covering it with cloth, applying powdered clay and lacquer to the

Set of dining vessels in Kasuga Shrine style, about 1883. Lacquered wood, the tray 13 x 17K x 2O in. (33 x 44.5 x 7 cm). Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection; courtesy of San Antonio Museum of Art.

cloth to hide its texture, then applying increasingly fine grades of lacquer mixed with different powders, and finally adding several applications of best-quality lacquer. As each of the twenty or even thirty coats is applied the lacquer must be given time to harden, and must then be polished with a range of substances, starting with abrasive stones and finishing with powdered staghorn and oil. All this has to be completed before any designs are applied to the surface.

Shibata Zeshin began to master this complex craft technology in 1817, when he was apprenticed to a leading lacquer workshop in his native city of Edo (later renamed Tokyo). He was then eleven years old, and would work in the medium for more than seven decades.


Zeshin often presented himself as a guardian of old-time cultural norms, but he also participated enthusiastically in the transformation of artistic life that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1867–8. During that key moment in Japan’s history, the government of the shoguns was swept away by a coalition of reformist samurai, and the teenage Emperor was moved from Kyoto, the old capital, to Tokyo (formerly known as Edo) where he headed a semi-constitutional monarchy. The new rulers were zealous in their support for traditional craft industries, and were especially active in promoting their country at domestic and international trade expositions.

From 1868 until his death in 1891, Zeshin continued to work mainly for private Japanese clients, but also accepted government commissions, served on research committees, and socialized with foreign dignitaries, art dealers, and writers. Much of his work for the authorities took the form of pieces destined for international events, starting with a lacquered panel of Mount Fuji submitted to the Vienna Exposition of 1873 and continuing until the Paris Exposition of 1889, where he showed a panel with waves and crayfish, related to one in this exhibition.

Panel with vegetable design, 1888. Lacquered wood, 24 3/4 x 36 3/4 in. (63 x 93.5 cm). Gallery Chikuryūdō, Tokyo.

Clearly intended to emulate the scale and impact of framed Western oils and establish lacquering as an independent painting medium, these panels (four are featured in the exhibition) are among Zeshin’s most unusual and striking works. The very large example illustrated opposite uses a group of vegetables to illustrate the Buddha’s passing into nirvana, the giant radish (daikon) in the center representing the Enlightened One. Formerly in the collection of Baron Iwasaki, founder of the Mitsubishi business empire, it was loaned by him to the National Industrial Exposition in 1889 and was also shown at Zeshin’s memorial exhibition in December 1907.


Until Zeshin’s time, most quality lacquerwares had relied for their decorative effect not only on painstaking craftsmanship but also on lavish use of precious metal flakes, foils, and powders, as well as other materials such as ivory, coral, and shell. Zeshin learned these traditional methods from an early age and used them through his life. During the 1840s, however, he responded to harsh new laws against conspicuous consumption by developing alternative types of decoration, using cheaper materials but devoting extra time and skill to their preparation and execution.

To achieve the wave-patterned seigaiha-nuri (“blue-sea-waves lacquering”), for example, he pulled a comb through a thin layer of wet lacquer mixed with cereal starch to
Tetsusabi-nuri: Cake box with butterflies and stylized chrysanthemums, about 1860–90. Lacquered wood, 4 1/2 x 6 5/8 x 2 1/2 in. (11.4 x 16.8 x 6.4 cm). Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection; courtesy of San Antonio Museum of Art.
improve its viscosity, an apparently simple technique requiring almost unimaginable skill and accuracy, since the work had to be perfectly executed in a very short time before the lacquer dried, and mistakes could not be corrected. To create a subdued dark-green ground suggestive of antique Chinese bronze, called seidō-nuri (“bronze lacquering”), he scattered several layers of charcoal and bronze dust onto wet lacquer, while in tetsusabi-nuri (“iron-rust lacquering”) he simulated the look of rusty iron using charcoal dust, vinegar, and iron-oxide filings. Shitan-nuri, the most elaborate of all these finishes, combines a whole range of techniques (including the use of a scratching tool made from a rat’s tooth) to imitate polished Chinese rosewood.


The special surfaces described and illustrated on the previous pages produced a subdued combination of texture and decoration that has been seen in Japan as embodying the spirit of iki. This hard-to-define philosophy of life, sometimes inadequately translated as “chic” or “cool,” is more easily captured in images than in words, and can be sensed in Zeshin’s choice of quiet colors, his eye-teasing disposition of motifs, and a nostalgic love for the traditional Japanese townsman world that is often reflected in his choice of subjects.

Seidō-nuri: Writing box with festival motif, about 1860–70. Lacquered wood, 8 1/8 x 8 5/8 x 1 7/8 in. (20.5 x 22 x 4.8 cm). The Khalili Collection of Japanese Art.

A few anecdotes have survived which give us an idea of iki as it could be reflected in an individual’s daily life. In 1917, novelist Mori Ōgai wrote a semi-fictional biography of Saiki Kōi, a denizen of the theater and brothel quarters who died in 1870, just as the old world of Edo was coming to an end. The book concludes with this paragraph about Kōi’s friend Zeshin:

“Shibata Zeshin was a man with a sharp temperament . . . Once Zeshin took his son and a number of his pupils to the Yoshiwara [brothel district], where he entertained them with comic interludes. He had food and drink served to feast them. When he noticed, however, that one of the pupils had relaxed his formal sitting posture, he thundered and scolded at him. Zeshin had no qualms about setting foot in the gay quarter; he was no stickler, but he had a streak of sternness in him.”1

The combination of extravagance--in terms of time and effort--with creative self-discipline seen in pieces like the box opposite neatly mirrors the attitude to life embodied in Zeshin’s behavior. Both could aptly be described as iki.

Seigaiha: Tray with plovers in flight over waves, about 1860–90. Lacquered wood, 9 1/2 x 6 5/8 x 5/8 in. (24.1 x 16.8 x 1.6 cm). Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection; courtesy of San Antonio Museum of Art.


From an early age, Zeshin studied conventional painting in ink and colors on paper or silk. He continued to work in these media throughout his life, but in 1873 he also started to experiment with colored lacquer, applying it to paper with a brush. This was an abrupt departure from conventional lacquer decoration, which was done by sprinkling gold and silver powders onto wet lacquer applied to an existing polished lacquer ground.

Earlier artists had occasionally painted in lacquer, but Zeshin is thought to have developed the process in two ways. First, he discovered methods of coloring lacquer without affecting its physical properties; second, he experimented with additives to make it more flexible so that it could be applied to scrolls without flaking off when they were rolled and unrolled. The secrets of Zeshin’s recipes for painted lacquer died with him, but the near-perfect condition of the many lacquer-painted hanging scrolls in this exhibition is evidence enough of his technical wizardry in adapting a traditional art material to novel uses.

Dolls’-Festival Figures in Preparation, about 1880. Hanging scroll; colored lacquers, white pigment, and gold leaf on paper, 12 1/2 x 16 1/2 in. (31.8 x 41.9 cm). Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection; courtesy of San Antonio Museum of Art.
The new mode of expression, called urushi-e or “lacquer pictures”, was an attempt to emulate the viscous medium of oil painting, and Zeshin’s prolific use of it reflected the widespread impact of Western artistic practice at the start of the Meiji era (1868–1912). Even so, Zeshin’s urushi-e expressed an aesthetic that ran contrary to anything seen in contemporary Western painting. In fact, he often used the technique, as in the example illustrated opposite, for some of his most delicate, wistful celebrations of traditional Japanese life and culture.


The Ibaraki Demon Snatches Back Her Arm, about 1839–40. Hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper, 51 ½   x 63  in. (131 x 159.7 cm). Klaus F. Naumann Collection.
From age sixteen Zeshin studied painting with Suzuki Nanrei, a pupil of Maruyama Ōkyo, who is celebrated for combining elements of Western naturalism with traditional East Asian brushwork. After nine years with Nanrei, Zeshin moved to Kyoto and spent a further two years with another of Nanrei’s teachers, Okamoto Toyohiko; he would paint in his own version of the Maruyama style for the rest of his life.

In 1839 Zeshin was commissioned to paint a panel for a Shinto shrine. The unusual subject, seen opposite in a rare preparatory sketch, was based on the story of a female demon who haunted Kyoto’s Rashōmon gate. The hero Watanabe no Tsuna (953–1025) tried to subdue the demon, but she attacked him from behind and he was only able to cut off her forearm, which his master Raikō locked in a chest. Later Raikō’s aunt came to his door and begged for a glimpse of the severed limb. When he unlocked the chest, she snatched the arm, turned back into a demon, and disappeared. Zeshin had his teenage pupil Ikeda Taishin model for the painting by posing in his mother’s kimono and holding a Japanese radish (daikon) in place of the arm.

Zeshin’s success with the panel was due not just to its power and drama but also to its hidden message. The demon’s recovery of its property from a samurai symbolically fulfilled the nineteenth-century merchant class’s desire to get even with the clumsy, oppressive regime of the shoguns.

1. Translation by William R. Wilson, quoted with permission from David Dilworth and J. Thomas Rimer, eds., The Historical Fiction of Mori Ōgai (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991), p. 384. © UNESCO.
Topics:  Art

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