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The Exquisite Art of Shibata Zeshin: Lacquerwares and Paintings

April 27, 2024–October 27, 2024

Shibata Zeshin, Japanese, 1807-1891, Still Life with Vegetables, 19th century, Colored lacquer and gold leaf on paper, 7 1/8 × 10 5/8 in. (18.1 × 27 cm), On loan from The Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection, L.2009.10.3 


The new installation in the Japanese Gallery focuses on lacquer, a medium derived from the toxic sap of trees belonging to the genus of poison oaks. Asian lacquer trees are found in India, China, Korea and Japan, and each country has produced distinctive lacquerwares since ancient times.  

Throughout its history, lacquer has been used in a variety of ways for finishes on a wide range of items. In Japan, polished gold boxes embellished with designs in mixed metals and cut and sprinkled gold became one of the exquisite crafts produced as early as the Heian period (794–1185). Black lacquer decorated in gold as well as a warm red lacquer finishes were produced for dining utensils used in Buddhist temples and elite homes. 

Japanese lacquerwares reached a pinnacle in the work of artist Shibata Zeshin during the Meiji period (1868–1912). Zeshin was a multi-talented artist who learned traditional painting techniques but was also extraordinarily skilled in using lacquer. Notably, he adapted this difficult medium to painting by inventing a way to maintain the flexibility of the lacquer so that a scroll could be rolled without cracking. 

Works on view include sake ewers, stacked boxes for food, storage boxes for paper and clothing, writing boxes with inkstones and brushes, and paintings.

Exhibition Gallery

Shibata Zeshin, Japanese, 1807-1891, Still Life with Vegetables, 19th century, Colored lacquer and gold leaf on paper, 7 1/8 × 10 5/8 in. (18.1 × 27 cm), On loan from The Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection, L.2009.10.3 

The Four Sleepers, Shibata Zeshin, 1807-1891, Japan, Meiji period, 19th century, Hanging scroll: ink on paper, on loan from the Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection, L.2009.10.4

Octagonal Tray, Artist Unknown, Japan, 16th or 17th century, Negoro ware, red lacquer on wood, On loan from the Catherine and Thomas Edson Collection, L.2011.10.4

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