Asian Art

Document Box with Tray, Late Edo-Meiji period, late 19th-early 20th century
Wood, lacquer, and gold
18 1/2 x 14 7/8 x 8 1/2 in. (47 x 38 x 21.7 cm)
Gift of Norbert Schimmel, 1954
AMAM 1954.89

This wooden document box decorated with bird and flower motifs illustrates the opulence and technical virtuosity of nineteenth-century Japanese lacquer ware.

Asian lacquer is derived from the sap of the tree rhus vernicifera.1 When refined, brushed onto another surface, and allowed to dry, it provides a highly durable finish that protects against temperature, humidity, and insects. Long admired in China, Korea, and Japan for both its protective and aesthetic properties, this medium has been used for millennia in the manufacture of a variety of objects, from food utensils to storage containers for paper, textiles, or other materials sensitive to environmental damage.

Primitive lacquering was known in Japan as early as the third century B.C., but did not develop into a significant art form until the introduction of Chinese lacquering techniques in the seventh or eighth century A.D. Japanese craftsmen quickly developed the art in new ways, and by as early as the tenth century A.D. a uniquely Japanese style of lacquer work had already appeared. The most distinctive characteristic of Japanese lacquers is the extensive use of the maki-e, or "sprinkled picture," technique. Maki-e lacquers are created by sifting powdered gold, silver, or copper through fine bamboo tubes onto a wet lacquer surface to create a design. Once the lacquer has dried, the design can either be polished flush with the surface of the vessel (hiramaki-e), built up with extra layers of lacquer and powders to create a relief effect (takamaki-e), or covered over with additional coats of lacquer which are then partially ground away to give the appearance of the design emerging from the surface of the vessel (togidashi maki-e). All three techniques are masterfully employed in the diverse visual effects decorating this box.

Raw lacquer is highly toxic and must be applied slowly and with great care. Moreover, each coat of lacquer must be fully dry before the next one can be applied. Since the surfaces of lacquer vessels may consist of several dozen coats of lacquer, the manufacture of lacquered objects may take months or even years of intermittent labor to complete. Because of these labor costs, combined with the costs of the precious metals used in the maki-e technique, high-quality lacquer wares were often extremely expensive. A large object such as this box, using significant quantities of gold, could only have been afforded by the highest echelons of elite society. Indeed, the falcon on the cover of this box and the chrysanthemum crest on the bird's perch suggest that this box may originally have been made for a member of Japan's imperial family.

C. Mason


Collection Norbert Schimmel, by whom given in 1954



Technical Data
The box consists of three pieces: box, tray, and lid. All elements are constructed of wood, fastened with dovetail joints, and covered with numerous coats of lacquer. The designs are created with gold leaf and gold powder, using takamaki-e, hiramaki-e, and togidashi maki-e techniques. Additional elements of the decoration are created with cinnabar lacquer, silver, mother-of-pearl, and glass.

The box is in very good condition overall, with minor chips and cracks, many of which have been repaired using traditional techniques.

1. For information about lacquer, consult Jonathan Bourne et al., Lacquer: An International History and Collector's Guide (London, 1984).