I haven’t seen it yet, the 17th century Japanese lacquer chest acquired by the Rijksmuseum at an auction held at Château de Chevery in the Loire Valley on 9 June, 2013. The chest is currently being studied and restored, the latter a hazardous enterprise due to the complexity of the techniques used on the delicate decorations. The auction was a blood-curdling one: the opening amount of Euro 200,000 rose dramatically until finally two persistent bidders (the Rijksmuseum and an unidentified American museum) battled it out among themselves. The Rijksmuseum won, paying Euro 7,311,000. What makes this chest so special and why is it of such importance to a Dutch Museum?
Who commissioned the Rijksmuseum chest?
In 1635, after a period of having encouraged foreign trade, the Tokugawa Shogunate changed course as a result of its determination to exterminate Christian influence in Japan. Seclusion Laws were introduced prohibiting foreigners from entering Japan (and the Japanese from leaving). The only foreign ships allowed in Japanese territory were Chinese, Korean and Dutch but their movements were highly restricted. The monopoly for trading with Europe therefore fell entirely in the hands of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) and this also comprised expensive luxury products.
The finest lacquer destined for export was produced during a brief period by the Koami family, headed by Koami Nagashige (1599-1651). The Koami family workshop was the official supplier of lacquer to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Between 1637 and 1639 they completed a Hatsune Konrei Maki-e, a bridal trousseau, on the occasion of the engagement of the two-year-old heir of the Tokugawa dynasty, Princess Chiyhime. This trousseau consisted of seventy-five lacquer boxes decorated with scenes from the Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), a masterpiece of prose written in the early 11th century by a lady of the court, Murasaki Shikibu. It is believed that the Rijksmuseum chest was made in the same workshop, commissioned by the Dutch Japan VOC trade mission and destined for the European market, which explains its interest for a Dutch museum. Until the Rijksmuseum acquired the lacquer chest no Dutch museum owned a VOC commissioned Japanese art work of such importance and exquisite beauty.
Nothing is known about the Rijksmuseum chest’s early history, but it is likely that François Caron (1600-1673), born in Brussels of Huguenot parents, may have commissioned it together with other lacquer chests to sell them on the European market. Caron is an intriguing figure with an adventurous career that took him to Japan, Siam, Taiwan and Madagascar. He was the first European to publish on Japan. His Beschrijvinghe van het machtigh conincrijcke Japan (Description of the Mighty Kingdom Japan) was published in 1649 without his co-operation; the later edition of 1661, approved by Caron and illustrated with engravings, saw several translations into English, German and French. This later edition contained a Q and A section with Caron answering questions about the Japanese way of life, trading conditions, the position of Japanese women, government and justice system, including cruelties perpetrated against Christians and a lengthy account on seppuku (harakiri, which he calls “belly-cutting”). The ritual apparently fascinated him so much that he used an illustration of it on the frontispiece of his book (see illustration).
Caron began his career as a cook’s mate on board a Dutch merchant vessel bound for Japan, arriving there in 1619. His language skills soon developed and in 1627 he traveled to Edo as the interpreter for the VOC trade mission to the shogunal capital. He would live in Japan for over twenty years, eventually becoming the VOC’s opperhoofd (chief factor) there. He and his Japanese wife had six children. His family followed him to the small artificial island Dejima near Nagasaki when the Japanese forced the Dutch to abandon their outpost at Hirado and moved with him to Batavia when he left Japan in 1641 following the expiry of his VOC contract there.
In spite of many difficulties which even led to his having been held hostage, Caron managed to ingratiate himself with Shogunate’s leaders and due to his proximity to them may have been aware of the extraordinary trousseau for the little Princess. In October 1643 the Dutch merchant ship Orangienboom left Japan for Batavia with on board four lacquer chests described as extrordinarij schoon (extremely fine). Each of these chests was valued more than four times the price of usual export lacquers. It was possible that Caron commissioned the chests between 1639 and 1641 and that they were shipped out to him later – lacquer chests of this quality took two to three years to complete. If so it must have been a risky enterprise since the Shogunate had instituted a law in August 1641 expressly forbidding the export of “art objects, including objects of lacquer”. Punishment for violation of this law was beheading. It is also possible that the Rijksmuseum chest accompanied Caron and his family when they left Japan in 1641. Evidently more research is needed.
If Caron had intended to sell his chests in Europe for a good price he was to be disappointed. Europe was destabilised by war and the cost of these expensive luxury items was prohibitive. Their delicate nature made that they could not be used for storage (although as we will see in the next post, this changed over time) and were regarded as objects of art solely.
Maki-e techniques and iconography of the Rijksmuseum chest
Whoever may have commissioned it, the Rijksmuseum chest is certainly related to the little Princess’ boxes, both in its execution and in its iconography. It is executed in some of the most difficult, complex and time-consuming techniques. Translated directly, maki-e means “sprinkled technique” and involves the application of lacquer followed by the sprinkling on of metal powders of different colours, shapes and degrees of finesse.
Many variations of the basic maki-e technique were used on the chest’s decorations. For instance, takamaki-e (raised sprinkled picture) decoration was used to create the tree trunk shown above. It is built up and modelled in low relief using a mixture of lacquer and fine clay prior to being sprinkled with gold powder. Small pieces of gold and silver foil known as kirikane (cut gold/metal) were applied to add variety and texture.
Every exterior panel except for the rear panel which only has one band is surrounded by a geometric frieze of three bands consisting of maki-e decoration combined with mother-of-pearl (raden) and metal foil (hyomon and kanagai) inlay showing three repeated Môn (Japanese heraldic symbols), alternating magnolia flowers with six petals, Dharma wheels and lotus flowers with eight branches. Mother-of-pearl has been used for the floral roundels in the wide, central band. Hyomon, which refers to the application of thick foil, has been used for the wheel roundels in the central band and for the zigzag band below, in both cases executed in silver which has oxidised over time. Kanagai refers to the application of thin foil such as that used for the gold banding above.
Short lengths of untwisted (marusen) and twisted (yorisen) gold and silver wire were used for the railings and other details of buildings, bridges and boats, and also in the representation of natural features. Silver sheet was cut to shape to represent roof ridges. The small silver ringlets (ginbyo) on the plants represent dew.
Lacquer for the domestic market rarely included figures as convention dictated that explicit narrative should be avoided and the depiction of a few key elements from a particular chapter or episode of a story was deemed to be sufficient to invoke the necessary association. This was not so for export lacquer. The chest’s front panel, for instance, shows thirty-six characters and many animals (ducks, chickens, dogs) from Chapter 28 of the Tale of Genji which tells how, after a storm, women gather flowers. Depicted are palaces and gardens in a wonderful alternating architecture.
The top of the lid is decorated with one of the Eight Views of Ōmi (Ōmi Hakkei) and shows twenty-one figures and animals playing around the mountain temple Ishiyama Dera where Murasaki Shikibu began writing the Tale of Genji while the inside of the lid is decorated with twenty-nine characters depicting a hunting scene from the Tale of the Soga Brothers. It was during this hunt that the Soga Brothers killed the murderer of their father. The scene shows many hunting images in a manner that is both majestic and anecdotal and we also see the Emperor on horseback, under a canopy, surrounded by eight soldiers. Eight horsemen hunt wild boar and deer, assisted by a dozen hunters. A variety of wildlife is present: deer, wild boar, rabbits, weasels and even a domesticated monkey, all placed in a landscape dominated by Mount Fuji. The scene is encased with four pairs of dragons.
Deer and other animals were created by beating out thin copper sheets, chasing in fine-line detailing and then gilding them, a technique called chokin (carved gold/metal). The components are fixed with a shitaji foundation (lacquer mixed with clay).
The lock is an artwork in itself, carved with metal magnolia flowers with two tigers and a golden dragon on a black background. The lock-plate and corner mounts are made of gilded copper partially coloured with sumi ink (soot back mixed with animal glue). The key is original.
The rear panel features three birds hovering close to two branches of magnolias; a beautiful and delicately serene scene. Magnolias flower in May and June and in Japan symbolise the summer season, which appears to be the overall theme of the decorations.
Japanese export lacquer of this quality ceased to be produced after 1641. The law prohibiting the export of art works remained in place until 1864. Because of the brief period during which these chests and boxes were produced, they are very rare. In the next post we will travel back to Europe to trace the story of the remarkable provenance of the Rijksmuseum chest and we will find out how it became, indeed, the most expensive TV stand in the world.
- Dutch extracts from Caron’s books can be found in P. Rietbergen, Japan verwoord. Nihon door Nederlandse ogen 1600-1799, pp. 96-156, 2003.
- A novel in Dutch by A.C.J. de Vrankrijker about Caron’s life appeared in 1943: François Caron: een carrière in het verre Oosten: historische roman, Elsevier, Amsterdam.
- A reprint from the 1671 English edition, A True Description of the Mighty Kingdoms of Japan and Siam (introduction and notes by Charles R. Boxer), appeared in 1935, Argonaut, London.
- On Japanese lacquer see (a.o.) Olivier Impey and Christian Jörg, Japanese Export Lacquer, 1580-1850, Hotei Publishing, Amsterdam, 2005.