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Portable Cabinet with Gourd Design, early 17th century


The decorative potential of lacquer (the sap of the lacquer tree Rhus vernicifera) has been explored in Japan since the sixth century in a variety of styles and techniques. Over the centuries beautifully decorated lacquer objects were used as votive offerings to temples and as luxury items by the nobility. With changes in society in the Momoyama period (1573–1615) and the rise of a middle class, lacquer was put to new purposes and its use expanded. Among the new, practical lacquer items, portable cabinets demonstrated that new awareness.

The portable cabinet with three drawers (sage-dansu) was much favored by merchants in the Edo period for keeping inkstone, writing paper, and documents, or for use as a simple storage box when traveling. The motif of gourds, leaves, and scrolling vines is typical of the preference for designs taken from life rather than literature. Also characteristic is the continuation of the decoration around the sides of the box, creating a harmony of form and decoration. The technique employed to decorate the surface is makie-e, or “sprinkled picture,” a quintessentially Japanese form of lacquer decoration in which a powder of finely ground gold and silver is sprinkled onto designs painted in wet lacquer, creating a luminous effect.


(Spink & Son, Zurich, Ltd., Switzerland);

purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1976.

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