Art Finder Text Detail  
Item Actions
Ratings (0)

: Shibata Zeshin and the Art of Urushi-e


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
It is a peculiar aspect of Shibata Zeshin's reputation in Western countries that his lacquer works (figure 14) are coveted while his paintings and especially his prints remain relatively unknown. An entry in the 1837 Artists Directory1 lists Zeshin (1807-1891) principally as a painter and this is how the Japanese regarded him until the 1840s, when his technical research in lacquer brought him new acclaim as a foremost practitioner in that difficult medium. His extant works in miniature forms of Japanese art such as inro (figure 14),2 kobako, and suzuri-bako establish Zeshin as perhaps the greatest lacquer artist of the nineteenth century. Be this as it may, Zeshin's early fame was founded on one of his finest paintings, The Demoness (Kijo), which he completed in 1840 for the Woji-Inari shrine in Tokyo.3 This magnificent figural painting, presumably presented in honor of his uncle, the shrine architect,4 was a departure for Zeshin, who was then known principally for his landscape paintings. So effective was Zeshin's depiction of the grotesque demoness in flight that the painting was adopted as the guardian deity of Japanese industry and in 1921 it was declared an "Important National Treasure."It is Zeshin's painting, then, particularly his nature painting in lacquer on paper (urushi-e)5 executed during the 1870s and '80s, that is the primary focus of this discussion. An exceptionally fine six-leaf album by Zeshin recently bequeathed to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts by Richard P. Gale6 (figures 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, cover illustration) will serve as the primary vehicle for the investigation that follows.In its broadest historical context, the Minneapolis album is a nineteenth-century reassertion of Japan's continuous love of and devotion to nature. Since antiquity the artists of Japan have manifested a profound interest in the natural beauty surrounding them. Part of this reverence stems from the tenets of Shintoism, the indigenous religion, whose deified spirits (kami) often take the form of rivers, mountains, and waterfalls. Likewise, Buddhist doctrine imparts sacredness to all living things; man, trees, blossoms, and insects alike are part of the greater deity. Since at least the late fifth century, when naturalistic haniwa figures were made, the theme of nature has endured in Japanese art and has developed in relation to political and economic exigencies, stylistic changes, and aesthetic preferences. It is therefore instructive to review briefly Zeshin's background and characterize the age which provided his emergence. Shibata Zeshin, whose life spans the end of the Edo period (1615-1868) and the beginning of modern Japan, can be seen as a link between earlier Tokugawa traditions and the spirit of the new age that began with the Meiji Restoration in 1868.7Although the entire social structure of Japan underwent great change during the relative tranquility of the Edo period, the arts flourished in an era of self-contained brilliance. Economically the emergence of a middle class was most significant, for it meant a greater distribution of wealth which eventuated in a greatly increased patronage of the arts. With this growth of interest came an increase in the range of subject matter, new materials, the development of different styles, and innovative techniques. The Rimpa school, under the influence of Korin, Kenzan, and Hoitsu, continued to produce decorative art forms primarily for the aristocracy well into the nineteenth century. The Chinese-inspired Nanga tradition of literati painting developed during the eighteenth century and became, under artists like Taiga and Buson, an important aspect of Edo-period art and intellectual history. Another new form, the genre-oriented ukiyo-e, also came into being and flourished primarily in the large urban centers such as Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka. Immensely appealing to the merchant classes, ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints (hanga) were a direct reflection of the expanded aesthetic tastes and material interest of Tokugawa Japan. Among the new schools to develop was that of Maruyama, named for Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), figure 3). Okyo's realistic art was ideally suited to the representation of natural subjects, and it appealed primarily to the middle class.8 Working directly from nature, he often captured in his carefully detailed studies the very essence of the subject depicted. It is in the example set by Maruyama Okyo that the art of Zeshin is ultimately rooted. Eventually Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811) broke away from the Maruyama school and by combining the subject matter and techniques of the great Nanga artist Buson (1716-83) with Okyo's precepts, he founded the Shijo style of realistic paintings. Called Shijo ("Fourth Street") after the location of Goshun's studio in Kyoto, the tradition developed a bias for naturalism, but it also incorporated a virtuosity of brushwork and artistic intuition into its lyrical representations.9 Shibata Zeshin, by virtue of his training and sustained interest in nature as his chief subject matter, is generally considered by art historians as one of the last practitioners of the Shijo tradition.10The period of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) brought extensive changes to Japan's material culture. The patronage of the Tokugawa shogunate (1615-1867) which had for over two hundred years shaped the taste, roles, and function of Japan's art, came to an end. The new government encouraged rapid westernization, and many traditional artists were faced with unemployment. In spite of his conservative tendencies, Zeshin was successful in maintaining his artistic integrity and gaining recognition at home and abroad during both administrations.Zeshin was born on February 7, 1807, in the Ryogoku district of Edo. His father was Ichigoro Chobei, the eldest son of Isumi Chobei, who worked as a carpenter for an Edo shrine. Ichigoro11 was adopted by Shibata Seishichi, a tobacconist, and eventually married Seichichi's daughter Masu.12 Their son Kametaro was to become the artist known as Shibata Zeshin.13 Ichigoro worked part-time as an amateur engraver and ukiyo-e artist; probably Zeshin's use of engraving techniques and the ukiyo-e form stemmed from this source.Zeshin's talent in painting was recognized early, and at the age of eleven he was apprenticed to the famous gold lacquer craftsman Furimitsu Kanya. Shibata also studied for eight years under the equally famous Koma Kansai II (1766-1835), who was patronized by the Tokugawa family and was reputed to be the best lacquer artist of the Koma line. In 1822, at the age of sixteen, Zeshin became a student of Suzuki Nanrei (1755-1844), a Shijo painter who had studied under Maruyama's Okyo's pupil Watanabe Nangaku. During the spring of 1830, at Nanrei's suggestion, Zeshin traveled to Kyoto to further his education under the tutelage of the Shijo artist Okamoto Toyohiko (1773-1845), himself a pupil of Goshun, the founder of the Shijo school. Thus Zeshin became thoroughly exposed to the Maruyama-Shijo tradition, in which the realistic portrayal of nature was emphasized. There is little doubt that Zeshin learned to sketch from life during this period while he combined his increasing skill as a painter with his talent in the use of lacquer. After an exceptionally fruitful two years in Kyoto,14 which included intensive studies of ancient temples and forgotten craft techniques, Shibata returned to Edo, where he assumed the style-name Zeshin (the two characters of which mean "the only truth"). There he established a workshop called Tairyuko (meaning "house opposite the wallows")15 where he painted in the mornings and produced lacquerware in the afternoons.Turning our attention at last to the Minneapolis album, we may translate the colophon on the interior of the box lid as follows:An album of lacquer paintings by the venerable old man Zeshin, six leaves:
Young Pine Trees (Wakamatsu)
Puppies and Bamboo
Cucumbers (Kyuri)
An Autumn Souvenir (Iezuto)
A Tiger in the Snow
A fine document and genuine work by (Ze)Shin (followed by illegible four-character seal).The title colophon on the album cover reads:Lacquer paintings by the old man Shibata Zeshin. Six sheets (followed by an illegible seal).The six leaves are mounted accordion-fashion in the order described, and the boards and hinges are in excellent repair.The first leaf is an abbreviated landscape executed chiefly in black and dark green lacquer and signed in the lower right corner Zeshin (figure 1). The signature is followed with the seal shin, the last half of the artist's name.16 The title reads Wakamatsu or "young pine trees," more specifically the pine favored by the Japanese as decoration for the new year. The tiny evergreens may have been intended here as a seasonal reference. In a broader context, the pine is a standard literati reference to Confucian virtue. Its ability to remain green throughout seasonal changes and to take root in the poorest of soils symbolized the tenacity that supposedly characterized the gentlemen scholar. It will be recalled that Zeshin was appreciated primarily as a landscape artist during his early years and that he took special interest in depicting rocks and stones. The hard leading edge of this rocky hillock dominates the composition by setting a black silhouette of stone and pine trees solidly against a void. A certain power and movement is imparted by the use of the rough texture strokes which, in their virility, contrast markedly with the posed, delicate flowers, reeds, and bamboo shoots. The painting, in its reliance on dark jagged stones and pines silhouetted against vaporous space, calls to mind two of Zeshin's finest landscapes, Pine Trees in the Gorge in the Shinenkan Collection (figure 2)17 and A View of Enoshima of 1884.18 The Shinenkan example affords a greater vista than the Minneapolis album leaf and its more emphatic spatial manipulations in combination with the typical hard leading edges bring to mind certain effects of the Nanga tradition. These three works, similar in technique, subject matter, and stark juxtaposition of forms, typify Zeshin's approach to urushi-e landscapes in the 1880s. The artist also displays here the ability to treat landscape on the one hand as a grandiose conceptual composition and on the other as a quiet, unassuming fragment of nature. Zeshin's effective use of dramatic landscape forms will be encountered in other leaves of the Gale album.The second leaf of the Minneapolis album, which illustrates frolicking puppies, is closer to the Shijo norm in its subject matter and brushwork (figure 3). The artist's debt to past masters is readily apparent if we compare this work with a Maruyama Okyo kakemono (hanging scroll) of 1779 in the Gale Collection (figure 4).19 Okyo, in his direct approach to nature, remained faithful to the broad brush style in which he was trained and that he passed on to his students. Zeshin has maintained some of this spontaneity of brushwork and, in spite of its thick consistency, has skillfully maintained in lacquer the integrity of brush strokes that more often underlies sumni (ink) paintings.20 Although the contour strokes that define the puppies in the Zeshin leaf are similar to those of the Okyo drawing, Shibata has taken advantage of the stiffness in lacquer and given the pup in the foreground an intriguing bristlelike coat of fur.The Minneapolis leaf is closely related to small lacquer paintings of puppies among dandelions by Zeshin in the Bigelow Collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.21 Both compositions include three rotund pups: two reclining, the other standing. Three-quarter, profile and head-on views are used in both. The prevailing color is again black, and the setting and facial details so close that the Boston leaf must also belong to Zeshin's mature period, the decade of the 1880s.Kittens and puppies as artistic subject matter can easily become sentimentalized and less than engaging in an intellectual sense. It is to the credit of Okyo and Zeshin that their sensitivity, keen observation, and technical facility have transformed such subjects into a reflection of their contributions to our total picture of life.The third leaf of the Minneapolis album is a particularly commendable composition of breaking waves (figure 5). Zeshin's Breakers cover nearly the entire stretch of paper. Churning with great turbulence, they race and crash against a battered reef, throwing foamy spume high into the air. The lacquer in this bold, powerful design shows traces of the brush, seemingly effortlessly plied. Zeshin's training as a lacquerer is nowhere more apparent than in the beautifully wrought nashiji (pear-skin) ground of sprinkled gold in the upper right corner (cf. figure 14). This rather surprising shift in technique is effective in the contrasting of minutely detailed workmanship to the facile, swiftly executed waves below.Water motifs were an often-repeated theme in Japanese art. Birds flying over water was a subject common to several periods,22 and Tokugawa artists, especially of the Rimpa persuasion, were constantly attracted by the decorative potential of wave motifs.23 This quality seems to be the raison d'être for Zeshin's painting of Breakers, for the dynamic composition, sprinkled gold ground, and rich two-dimensional surface are more decorative than representational in nature. Nonetheless Breakers, like Pine Trees in the Gorge (figure 2), is a rare glimpse of Shibata's interest in depicting the dramatic potential of our natural environment.The fourth leaf of the Gale album, entitled Cucumbers, is a classic Zeshin painting and it ranks as one of his finest efforts (cover illustration).24 In this polished miniature, typically Shijo subject matter is conveyed in flawless brushwork, rich coloration, and a perfectly balanced composition. The artist has used only three colors and a touch of gold in realistically depicting a pair of well-ripened cucumbers (kyuri) and their leaf and stem. The vegetables are rendered in graded washes that are darkest along the crisp contours, but gradually lighten in tonality towards the center. The leaf, stem, and tendril are also precisely delineated in rich, natural colors. Easily missed, a tiny black ant quietly makes its way along the underside of the nearest cucumber. The delicate antennae and legs of this little insect, like the textured surface of the kyuri and its hairy stem, have been minutely detailed in a way that reminds us of the perfection of small things. Zeshin is seen here at his best, instilling a sense of quiet beauty and perfection into the humblest of nature's subjects.25Many of these same qualities are apparent in the fifth leaf of the Minneapolis album, An Autumn Souvenir (figure 6). The title refers to the tiny grasshopper who pokes his head out of a furoshiki, having just hitched a ride from an unsuspecting traveler. The red maple leaves, indicative of the season, contrast vividly to the white, delicately outlined wrapping cloth. Zeshin has made extensive but subtle use here of the nashiji gold lacquer technique in decorating the paper ground. The rich embellishment does not, however, interfere with the artist's masterful use of space as an element in the total composition. Shibata's acute understanding of negative space underlies the success of several of his better designs, be they in urushi-e (cover illustration, figure 7), woodblock prints (figures 8, 10), or lacquer.Void areas figure prominently in the composition of what may be the highlight of the Gale album, leaf number six, A Tiger in the Snow (figure 7). From behind a frozen waterfall a crouching tiger glares out with a vengeful intensity that could seemingly melt the snow on the ice-laden bamboo leaves. As attested by ancient bronzes, tigers were already common motifs in China in the Shang (about 1523-1028 B.C.) and Chou (1028-256 B.C.) periods. From the Chinese mainland their popularity was transmitted to Korea and ultimately Japan. The painting of tigers in Japan was directly influenced by the Sun, Yüan, and the Ming dynasty monochromatic works that were brought to the island kingdom by returning Buddhist priests during the Muromachi era (1334-1573). Although the tiger motif early carried great significance in Zen art,26 its secular vogue increased greatly during the Tokugawa period, and artists like Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) and Nagasawa Rosetsu (1755-1799), himself a pupil of Okyo, delighted in painting large, colorful, and often amusing portraits of these ferocious beasts.27 Similarly, Zeshin has rendered his tiny feline without either religious symbolism or strict realism in mind. He worked in this instance not so much from nature as from his own imagination, creating a variation on an established artistic theme.The fact that Shibata placed his tiger in snow may be an indication of how we should view this exceptional album. It will be recalled that the first leaf, an illustration of the New Year's pine (wakamatsu), may have been a reference to the beginning of a new year. The second painting of puppies and bamboo sprouts, young plants and frolicking baby animals, can be seen as a common indicator of springtime. The third leaf, Breakers, is less obvious, but its suggested power and motion may relate to seasonal transition or to the full vitality of summer just before the decline of autumn sets in. In the fourth leaf the cucumbers have already turned color and this in conjunction with the accompanying ant must be a reference to late summer or early fall. The red maple leaves of the fifth leaf are of course a standard Japanese symbol for autumn and the snowy domain of the tiger in the final leaf is an obvious sign of winter. Given the Japanese sensitivity to seasonal change, and the order in which the leaves are placed, it seems appropriate to consider the Gale album as a veiled reference to the yearly cycle.Although eight years earlier in date, a small leaf in the Shinenkan Collection illustrating icicles and the moon seems to depict the very view the tiger in the Gale album saw from within his snowy lair (figure 8).28 The painting, quiet and subdued, relies on a carefully controlled design which effectively balances the weight of a diagonal overhang with the circular void of a pale moon. Imaginative compositions such as this demonstrate Zeshin's unique ability to improvise by combining elements of nature in a manner that transcended the more routine "realist" painting of the Meiji period. In fact, the hard-edge character of the moon and icicles and the strong design and delicate rendering of the flowers and grasses seem more Rimpa than Shijo in inspiration.29 The poetic simplicity and balance of this painting, like many of Zeshin's later urushi-e works, is an expression of traditional Japanese aesthetic values.When analyzing and composing major elements of a design, Shibata's brushwork could be crisp, clean, and efficient. In the description of details, however, his brush often luxuriated in what became a unique interpretation of natural data. A superb example of this tendency, now in the Institute's collection, is Zeshin's depiction of a long-tailed rooster (figures 9, 10).30 The bird depicted is an onagadori, a breed which is admired in Japan for its extraordinary tail feathers and which has been bred in that country for over three hundred years.31 The transparency, control, and detail that Zeshin was able to achieve with lacquer on paper is unsurpassed. The fluidity of the brushwork in the plum branch, the varied delicacy of the plumage, and the pebbled texture of the cock's comb create a surface richness that few, if any, Meiji artists could match technically (figure 10). In spite of the feathered opulence, however, it is the balanced composition and simplicity of design within this difficult vertical format that is quintessentially Zeshin. The ability to control virtuosity while combining pure decoration, strong design, and technical perfection typifies the subtle restraint and refinement that marked his later works.The same qualities can be found in Zeshin's third major field of artistic activity, printmaking. As a printmaker, Shibata is best known as a designer of the special occasion prints called surimono. The recent accession of the important Charles H. Mitchell Collection of surimono prints by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts now makes over a dozen of Zeshin's woodblock designs available for study. One such print, Morning Glories of 1877, relates in theme and expression to the fourth leaf of the album discussed above (figure 11). In this fairly realistic work the leaves, tendrils, and blossoms combine to form an interesting composition wherein blank space again plays a major role. The way in which this design spills beyond the confines of the border is common to lacquerware as well. Zeshin often balanced a design by carrying a lid motif, for example down onto the sides and ends of a lacquer box.The miniature forms of lacquerware to which Zeshin was accustomed, like his paintings and prints, present a rather limited spatial framework for design placement, demanding a sophisticated use of surrounding space and internal voids. In this regard Zeshin possessed a heightened sensitivity for spatial manipulation and a unique vision for the miniature which make the small aspects of nature a highly refined theme in much of his work. This print and the Grasshopper and Sunflower (figure 12) are from a series of prints called Hana Kurabe which was issued from about 1875 to 1890.32 The series includes a rather complete inventory of Zeshin's compositional ideas from his mature period.One of the finest prints ever produced by Shibata is White Mice of about 1880 (figure 13).33 Again a superb sense of design is apparent, as is the technical achievement of the print itself, which looks deceptively closer to a sumi drawing than to a woodblock impression. Yet there is much more that appeals in Zeshin than mere technique. As was the case in the album studied above, his intelligence and wit in selecting his subject matter and his sensitive presentation of animal life are equally engaging aspects of his artistry. The powerful wrath of a tiger's glare, the solitude of an ant exploring his cucumber domain, or the vanity of a pedigreed rooster (figure 7, cover illustration, figure 9) contribute to the psychological realism that raises Zeshin's best art above mere representation. In spite of its difficult nature, the urushi-e medium afforded Zeshin the perfect opportunity to exploit his own craftsmanship fully. His carefully designed miniatures are studies in rich and polished perfection, but seldom are they slick or static. Shibata's technical skill is accomplished, his control of tone and line is never in doubt. His respect for the brush, his delight in observing the natural world, and his own restraint balanced his virtuosity admirably.34Zeshin was also a respected teacher,35 cofounder of the Japan Art Society (Nihon Bijutsu Kyokai)36 and held the revered position of "Artists for the Imperial Household" (Teishitsu Gigei-in) in 1890.37 He was honored with a retrospective exhibition of his works in 1907. The request for donations of works of art to that show, circulated by Count Tanaka, Chairman of the Bijutsu Kyakai, is a fitting tribute to Zeshin.38Although we have discussed only his lacquer paintings in detail, it must be emphasized that Shibata was a prolific artist. The quality of his best works and the variety of techniques he commanded are awesome. He was a master in lacquerware, painting, printmaking, woodcutting, and pottery, maintaining a firm conviction that only through traditional themes and techniques could an artist realize his full potential. His study and experimentation led to the nineteenth-century revision in lacquer art, now termed urushi-e. Although a traditionalist in terms of technique, Zeshin showed an amazing ability to assimilate a variety of artistic styles, materials, and taste while constantly improvising, combining, and adding elements of his own unique vision to his art.Robert Jacobsen is the Curator of Oriental Art at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.Endnotes
  1. Bernard Hurtig, "Shibata Zeshin," Journal of the International Netsuke Society 5, no. 1:30. This is one of the earliest records of Zeshin, made when he was thirty years old.
  2. Three Case Inro with Sleeve, 1887
    3-1/4 x 1-7/8
    Lacquer, dark brown roiro ground with nashiji lacquer interior; sleeve decorated with owl and tree motif in colored and gold togidashi; netsuke of dark brown roiro ground with gold lacquer design; coral bead ojime.
    Inscribed: The eighty-one year old man Zeshin in gold lacquer.
    Gift of an anonymous St. Paul friend, 76.72.94 (unpublished).A great innovator, particularly in his design and ground techniques, Zeshin is credited with reviving a forgotten lacquer process called seikai-ha-nuri. The difficult technique involved the use of brass bristles to rake through the still-wet lacquer surface, creating a striated wavelike pattern. Such impressed decoration is especially effective as a reflected surface and it added a dimension of movement to the lacquered ground. Zeshin was equally adept at the iji-iji-nuri process, which imitated a weathered, well-worn surface. Always imaginative, Zeshin rarely employed gold lacquer backgrounds, preferring a polished dark brown (figure 14), light tan, or the olive green that became his most celebrated ground. He was, however, intrigued by the gold lacquer texture known as nashiji (pear-skin ground) which he incorporated into his paintings as well as his lacquerware objects. Some excellent examples of Zeshin's lacquer are illustrated in Harold Stern, Birds, Beasts, Blossoms, and Bugs (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1976), nos. 121-124.
  3. Illustrated: Kokka [illustrated monthly journal of oriental art], no. 195 (August 1906), pp. 406-412. Interestingly, for a Shijo artist, Zeshin provides in this early large-scale work (64-3/8 x 87-1/4, colors on kiri wood) a painting which, in its overt movement, sprinkled gold ground, bright colors, and use of pattern, is not that far removed from the more decorative Rimpa tradition (cf. the famous pair of two-fold screens by Sotatsu in the Kennin-ji, Kyoto, that illustrate the gods of wind and thunder).
  4. The work was actually commissioned by the Tokyo Sugar Association, which was at that time enmeshed in a dispute with the Bakufu government over its commercial rights. In what may have been a veiled reference to the Bakufu itself, the subject of a demoness, drawn from a classic legend, was chosen, and the painting was offered to the Inari Shrine.
  5. Urushi-e in its literal sense means "lacquer picture." The term is used here in its narrowest context to designate a true lacquer painting, usually on paper, in which lacquer serves as the binding agent for various pigments. It is not to be confused with so-called lacquer prints, the hand-colored woodblocks in which transparent glue is used to create a lacquerlike effect.
  6. Album of Lacquer paintings by the Old Man Shibata Zeshin
    Dated in accordance with 1887
    Lacquer and sprinkled gold on paper, each leaf: 6-1/2 x 7-3/8
    The Richard P. Gale Bequest, 74.1.299References: unpublished with the exception of leaves two and three, which appeared out of context in Kokka, no. 215 (April 1908), pp. 282, 285, and in Nihon no Bijutsu 93, pls. 88, 89.
  7. That Zeshin is somehow a link between the Tokugawa and Meiji eras is a commonly accepted view. See Jack Hillier, The Uninhibited Brush (London: Hugh M. Moss, 1974), p. 346; Kokka, no. 195 (August 1906), p. 406; H. Trubner et al., Asiatic Art in the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle, 1973), p. 257. An exact stylistic classification is difficult; as will become apparent in the text, Zeshin was an artist of many talents. It is correct to say that his work remained essentially Shijo in inspiration throughout his life. However, his use of lacquer techniques, overt love for accurately reproducing naturalistic forms, superb sense of design and the polished perfection of many of his smaller paintings place some of his work outside of the Shijo tradition. On the other hand, some of Zeshin's most successful prints are admired for their ability to convey the spirit of an uninhibited brush in a print medium (cf. figure 10).
  8. In Kokka, no 259 (November 1912) we are provided a Japanese view of Okyo's uniqueness. The author felt that the Kano, Tosa, Ukiyo-e, Rimpa and Nange traditions (unlike Okyo) had essentially failed to "return to nature." He continues, "let us now inquire by what class of society the products of the new school were most appreciated. The Kano school looked for their admirers among daimyos and the upper classes. The Tosa and Sumiyoshi painted for kuge (court nobles). The Nangwa, a branch of the Chinese school, was favorite with the literati, while the Ukiyo-e school pandered to the popular taste. But the Maruyama school found its admirers mostly among the middle class, a domain hitherto unclaimed as it were, and the new school took full possession of the virgin soil."
  9. The finest work in English on the Shijo school is Hillier, The Uninhibited Brush. See also Shoga Kantei Shishin [Guide to paintings and calligraphy] 14-20 (Tokyo, 1928); Shiichi Tajima, Shijo ha gashu [Paintings of the Shijo school] (Tokyo, 1909); Chu Yoshizawa, Nanga to Shasei ga [Nanga and naturalistic painting] (Tokyo, 1969).
  10. Hillier, The Uninhibited Brush, p. 346, sees Zeshin as a sort of "epilogue" to the Shijo tradition. In Kokka, no. 215 (April 1908), p. 281, Zeshin's Shijo training is alluded to but the account goes on, "after a little while Zeshin came back to Yedo where he further polished by self-study his cherished arts, lacquering and painting, until at length he developed in each a style distinctly his own." See note 6 above.
  11. Zeshin's father, Shibata Ichigoro, although a tobacconist, was also interested in drawing and studied for a time under Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792), the ukiyo-e painter and printmaker who dominated the field of actor-prints during the late eighteenth century and taught, among others, Shunko and Hokusai. By the time he was eighteen Shibata had developed a strong friendship with the important ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), and it is likely that this relationship influenced the ukiyo-e style drawings encountered in some of Zeshin's lacquerwork as well as his eventual interest in woodblock printing.
  12. Before Masu's marriage to Ichigoro, the Seishichi family was so poor that Masu had been forced to work for a while as a geisha in Yoshicha in Nihonbashi. She was a gifted musician and Zeshin was intensely loyal towards her. Masu's influence is most apparent in Zeshin's personal and artistic makeup, which reflects her austere and ordered lifestyle and somber refinement. Shibata's study of waka and haiku poetry, as well as the tea ceremony (chanoyu) may have developed as well from his mother's rather conservative aesthetic standards.
  13. Biographical material on Zeshin can be found in the following: Shibata Zeshin, vol. 93 of Nihon no Bijutsu [Japanese art] (Tokyo, 1960- ); "Zeshin o Gakkan" [Catalog of an exhibition of masterpieces by Zeshin] (Tokyo, 1907); Tsuizen Kaiga Makie Tenraukai Shuppin Mokuroku [Catalog of exhibits at the posthumous exhibition of paintings and lacquer] (Tokyo, 1897); Kokka, nos. 215, 195; Stern, Birds, Beasts; Furness and Nagano, Zeshin (An Exhibition of Prints, Paintings and Lacquer) (London: Hillingdon Press, 1976); and Charles H. Mitchell; The Illustrated Books of the Nanga, Maruyama, Shijo, and Other Related Schools (Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1972), p. 203.
  14. In addition to studying with Toyohiko, Zeshin pursued literature and poetry under Kagawa Keiju, the arts of tea ceremony under Yoshida Sol, and haiku under Asuka-en Isso.
  15. Tairyukyo became a standard go (style name) of Zeshin. After his return to Edo he had a house built in Asakusa, Kamidaira, on the Kanda River. Growing on the opposite bank was a magnificent stand of willows which inspired the name. Zeshin used the name and seal Reisai until twenty-five years of age; Shin and Zeshin seals accordingly date after the age of twenty-six or after 1832. Zeshin also used the go Reiya, Chiuryutei, and Tanzen which roughly means "one's art portrays his innermost feelings." Each of the leaves three through six of the Gale album carries the seal Koman, a common stamp of Zeshin which means something to the effect of "full maturity" or "ripe old age."
  16. This seal appears on other paintings and prints by the artist: Stern, Birds, Beasts, no. 83; Furness and Nagano, Zeshin, nos. 28A, 41.
  17. Pine Trees in the Gorge
    Album leaf in the shape of a circular fan, 9-5/16 x 6-7/16
    Ink and lacquer on paper
    Signed Zeshin, followed by the seal Ze
    The Shinenkan Collection
  18. Illustrated, Kokka, no. 215 (April 1908), p. 283, dated 1884; cf. Alan Priest, "Zeshin," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., no. 12 (Dec. 1953), p. 92.
  19. Maruyama Okyo
    Gambolling Puppies
    Ink and light colors on silk, 15-1/2 x 20-3/4
    Dated: 1779Signed: Okyo; seals:Okyo and Chusen
    Bequest of Richard P. Gale, 74.1.136References: Japanese Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Richard P. Gale (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1966), no. 27; Jack Hillier, The Gale Catalogue of Japanese Paintings and Prints, vol. I (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), no. 136; Hillier, Japanese Drawings in Great Drawings of the World (New York, 1965), pl. 22. Ex Coll.: Sanji Muko
  20. Obviously there are many difficulties in executing this type of lacquer painting. In its natural form lacquer (the sap of the sumac) is similar in consistency to honey and it requires patience to apply and a long period to dry. Urushi paintings were usually done on sized paper to prevent the lacquer from blurring, and the range of colors was somewhat limited. In his middle and later years Zeshin became an exceedingly prolific artist and experimenter, and overcame several of the technical drawbacks in the medium.
  21. Illustrated, K. Tomira, "Lacquer Pictures by Zeshin," Boston Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, no. 27 (Fall 1929), p. 11.
  22. A fine example of Swallows and Waves by a contemporary of Zeshin, Okamoto Shuki (1785-1862) is in the Shinenkan Collection (Stern, Birds, Beasts, p. 133). Though no relation between the two artists is implied, the treatment of waves in the Zeshin and Shuki paintings is quite similar.
  23. For example see Hiroshi Mizno, Edo Painting: Sotatsu and Korin (Tokyo, 1972), nos. 91, 135, 74; Trubner, Asiatic Art, no. 230.
  24. Signed: Zeshin; seal: Koman. Related painted compositions featuring plant and insect life are illustrated in Stern, Birds, Beasts, nos. 84, 86; Furness and Nagano, Zeshin, no. 25; Alan Priest, "Zeshin," p. 98; Hillier, The Uninhibited Brush, no. 276.
  25. Zeshin was famous for his ability to simulate other materials in lacquer. He was adept at imitating ink sticks, pottery, rusty iron, patinated copper, wood, and even insects. See: Stern, Birds, Beasts, nos. 121 and 123; Hurtig, "Zeshin," figures 41, 41 a-b.
  26. Fontein and Hickman, Zen Painting and Calligraphy (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1970), nos. 3, 7, 10, and 29.
  27. One of the finest groupings of Edo-period tiger paintings is found in the Shinenkan Collection. See Stern, Birds, Beasts, nos. 46, 53, 57, 61, and 70.
  28. Icicles and Moon, 1879
    Album leaf mounted as a hanging scroll
    Lacquer on paper, 7-5/16 x 6-7/16
    Inscribed: The seventy-three year old man Zeshin
    Seal: Koman
    The Shinenkan Collection (unpublished)
  29. For more obvious examples of this tendency, see Stern, Birds, Beasts, pls. 82, 83.
  30. A Long-tailed Rooster
    Lacquer on paper, kakemono, 47 x 11-1/2
    Signed: Zeshin
    Seal: Zeshin
    Gift of an anonymous St. Paul friend, 78.62 (unpublished)
  31. The fowl is a strain of Gallus gallus which has been bred in southwestern Japan since the mid-seventeenth century. In 1973 a tail measuring thirty-four feet, nine and one-half inches was recorded by Mr. Masaska Kukata of Kochi Shikoku, the world's longest feathers, according to The Guinness Book of World Records (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), p. 83.
  32. These prints were issued by Haibara in Tokyo from about 1875 to 1890. The title Hana Kurabe appears only on the wrapper for each series and none is dated. However, some prints, as is the case in point, do refer to Zeshin's age at the time he did the design. The prints are part of the G. B. Mitchell collection of surimono woodblocks which was given to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Maslon in 1976.
  33. One of an untitled set of prints in similar format; about 1880s. Large oban yoko-e: 10-1/8 x 13-5/8
    Signed: Zeshin; seal: Koman
    Bequest of Richard P. Gale, 74.1.289
    Published: Mori Sale Catalogue, New York, December 1926, no. 439; Church Sale Catalogue, New York, February 1946, no. 218; Hillier, Gale Catalogue, no. 289. Other reproductions including some of the remaining prints in this series: Hillier, Japanese Prints and Drawings from the Vever Collection (New York: Rizzoli, 1976), vol. III, nos. 958-961.
  34. Notable American collections of Zeshin paintings and prints can be found in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Shinenkan Collection, the Brooklyn Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Fogg Museum of Fine Art, and the Freer Gallery. The Zeshin lacquer paintings on paper in the Avery Brundage collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco are especially noteworthy, including six scrolls, a two-fold screen, and thirty-one album leaves in two volumes (see Hurtig, "Zeshin," figs. 35-39).
  35. Utagawa Kuniyoshi met Zeshin in 1824 and shortly thereafter became one of his students. It is thought that Shibata gave him one of his names ("shin") which Kuniyoshi adapted to his own style-name, Senshin. Zeshin also taught the highly regarded Ikeda Taishin and, in addition, his own sons, Reisai and Ryushin.
  36. In 1879 Zeshin became a member of the Ryuichi Society, later the Japan Art Society, cofounded by Zeshin, Kuki Ryuichi, and Sanotsu Tsunetani. In 1891 Zeshin, his student Taishin, Ogawa Shonin, and Kawano Beitcho formed the Union of Lacquer Craftsmen.
  37. Four years after the collapse of the Bakufu government in 1868, Zeshin was asked by Sano Tsunetani on behalf of the Meiji government to represent Japan at the International Exhibition in Vienna. Zeshin enjoyed ensuing government commissions and was awarded several prizes for his art. In 1890 he was appointed artist to the Imperial Household.
  38. The memorial exhibition was held at the Show Hall of Nihon Bijutsu Kyokai of Sakuragaoka, Ueno Park, from December 6 to 15, 1907. It is likely that the Minneapolis album was in this exhibition, for Kokka published several works undoubtedly from the show in no. 215 (April 1908). Leaves number two (Puppies) and three (Breakers) from the Gale album were illustrated in that article. The tribute recorded by Count Tanaka reads in part as follows:Old-man Zeshin Shibata was appointed as the head of the Imperial Art Board. . . . Particularly with respect to the originality and delicacy of his designs there has been no one better than him since Korin. He was the only one who maintained the level of art, despite his poverty when the art fell down to the ground during the Bakufu period . . . . he certainly is the greatest man in the art field of the Meiji era. . . .
    Chairman: Count Tanaka
    October 1907
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Shibata Zeshin
    Japanese, 1807-1891
    Young Pines, from an album dated 1887
    Lacquer on paper
    Signed: Zeshin; seal: Shin
    Bequest of Richard P. Gale, 74.1.299
  2. Shibata Zeshin
    Pine Trees in the Gorge
    The Shinenkan Collection
  3. Shibata Zeshin
    Puppies and Bamboo, from an album dated 1887
    Lacquer on paper
    Signed: Zeshin; seal: Zeshin
    Bequest of Richard P. Gale, 74.1.299
  4. Maruyama Okyo
    Japanese, 1733-1795
    Gambolling Puppies, 1779
    Ink and colors on silk
    Signed: Okyo; seals: Okyo and Chusen
    Bequest of Richard P. Gale, 74.1.136
  5. Shibata Zeshin
    Breakers, from an album dated 1887
    Lacquer and gold on paper
    Signed: Zeshin; seal: Koman
    Bequest of Richard P. Gale, 74.1.299
  6. Shibata Zeshin
    Autumn Souvenir, from an album dated 1887
    Lacquer and gold on paper
    Signed: Zeshin; seal: Koman
    Bequest of Richard P. Gale
  7. Shibata Zeshin
    A Tiger in the Snow, from an album dated 1887
    Lacquer on paper
    Inscribed: at the age of eighty-one the old man Zeshin
    Seal: Koman
    Bequest of Richard P. Gale, 74.1.299
  8. Shibata Zeshin
    Icicles and Moon 1879
    The Shinenkan Collection
  9. Shibata Zeshin
    Long-tailed Rooster
    Lacquer on paper, kakemono, 47 x 11-1/2
    Signed: Zeshin; seal: Zeshin
    Gift of an anonymous St. Paul friend, 78.62
  10. Detail of figure 9
  11. Shibata Zeshin
    Morning Glories, 1877
    Surimono woodblock print
    Inscribed: at the age of seventy-one, 1877
    Signed: Zeshin; seal: Tairyukyo
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel H. Maslon, P77.27.247
  12. Shibata Zeshin
    Grasshopper and Sunflower
    Surimono woodblock print
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel H. Maslon, P77.27.245
  13. Shibata Zeshin
    White Mice, about 1880
    Large Oban-yoko-e woodblock print
    Signed: Zeshin; seal: Koman
    Bequest of Richard P. Gale, 74.1.289
  14. Shibata Zeshin
    Three Case Inro, 1887
    Roiro ground lacquer with lacquer netsuke and coral ojime
    Inscribed: the eighty-one year old man Zeshin (in gold lacquer)
    Gift of an anonymous St. Paul friend, 76.72.94
Comments (0)
Tags (0)
Source: Robert O. Jacobsen, "Shibata Zeshin and the Art of Urushi-e," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 63 (1976-1977): 4-21.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009