From Here to Modernity

Shibata Zeshin Mouse, ca 1870Shibata Zeshin painted them in groups, in threesomes and twosomes, and one by one; he painted one as a monk, another on the shoulder of the god Daikokuten. Mice it seems were a favorite motif. Perhaps his affection for them was inspired by his early studies at Kyoto’s Maruyama-Shijo school of art where he was taught in the tradition of its founder, the celebrated eighteenth century artist Maruyama Okyo who worked from nature. Or perhaps it was a hidden message of support for the merchant class in feudal Japan—mice the ever-familiar token of prosperity.

Considered “history’s greatest lacquer artist,” Shibata Zeshin has the added distinction of being one of the first Japanese artists who became known in the West while alive.[1] He began his training in the arts in 1817 at age eleven. Along with instruction in traditional painting he apprenticed to a lacquer maker; he learned the complexities of the centuries-old craft, mastered the urushi—or the sap collected from the commonly called lacquer trees—that involved no less than thirty-three stages.[2] He became a leading lacquerer of trays and boxes and sword mounts, embedding them according to convention with bits of mother-of-pearl and gold and silver leaf. And in the 1840s when the shoguns decried precious metals in decorative works (“wasteful!” they said), like a politician he spun the bad news into good. He created lacquer techniques that simulated “rusty iron” and oxidized bronze.

Though by the fall of 1868, as any student of Japanese history knows, the shoguns had been toppled, the feudal class exhausted. The Meiji restoration displaced the Edo era. Japan opened its ports, and with the flood of visitors in their western garb Japanese traditional arts began to feel a tug. Their practitioners were left divided between those who accused their fellow artists of pandering to the West and the fellow artists who, in turn, criticized those who remained unbending in the winds of change.

Zeshin, however, soared above the squabble, buoyed by his constant craving for creative innovation. He gave lacquer a whole new purpose. Drawn to European oil paintings, which had begun to trickle into Asia, he was seduced by their rich hues, the startling contrasts in tones. In one fell swoop he merged the East and the West. He took the viscous resin and turned it into a painting medium, finding the right additives to increase its fluidity. He painted with the lacquer on panels and on paper exhilarating colors that had heretofore not been seen; yet, as opposed to many Meiji period painters, he stayed loyal to traditional subject matter, and to his best-loved leitmotif, the mouse.


[1] Joe Earle, “The Genius Of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin,” Japan Society articles.

[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: Roderick Conway Morris, “The Meiji Crisis in Japanese Art,” New York Times, March 27, 2013; Robert O. Jacobsen, “Shibata Zeshin and the Art of Urushi-e,” The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, 63 (1976-1977): 4-21; Joe Earle, Meiji No Takara: Treasures of Imperial Japan Masterpieces by Shibata Zeshin (The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Japanese Art), London: The Kibo Foundation, 1996.

(Image: Mouse, circa 1870, 19.4 x 16.8 cm, Lacquer on paper, The British Museum.)

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