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Shibata Zeshin: The Genius of Japanese Lacquer


Experimenting greatly with the technical elements of using lacquer by mixing it with a variety of substances to achieve different colors and textures, and to control the consistency and flexibility of the lacquer, the Japanese painter and lacquerer, Shibata Zeshin, is revered as history’s greatest lacquer artist, recognized worldwide for his detailed lacquered boxes, panels, sword mounts, and other objects, as well as scrolls painted in both ink and lacquer.

Famous as the Master of Urushi, Zeshin was born in Tokyo when it was still called Edo on March 15, 1807. His father was a sculptor. At the age of eleven, the young Shibata entered the workshop of a lacquer craftsman. Later he studied painting under Suzuki Nanrei and Okamoto Toyohiko.

An artist and artisan of superior skill and diversity, Zeshin worked as a painter, print-maker, and lacquerer. The use of urushi, a black Japanese lacquer, was one of his specialties and made him unique. He was also an ukiyo-e print-maker. But the emphasis of his artistic and artisan production was on painted screens and on all kinds of lacquerware utensils.

As lacquerer he invented and introduced several new techniques. One was called seido-nuri- a way to imitate the patina of old bronze.Zeshin’s art style is traditional and ultra-conservative. The depicted subjects are taken from nature or from Japanese legends and history. He also discovered additives for creating novel colors and textural effects.

Zeshin remained untouched by all the domestic turmoil in Japan during the transition from the old Edo period to the era of modernization during the Meiji period. He was not a stylistic innovator but a stern guardian of traditional values, and there is an aura of academic nostalgia about his work. He was very successful and his artwork became a kind of showcase of official Japan for the world outside.

Zeshin participated as the official representative of Japan in international exhibitions in Vienna in 1875, in Philadelphia in 1876 and in Paris. Towards the end of his life, he became a member of the Imperial Art Academy. And in 1890, one year before his death, he was appointed as a member of the Art Committee of the Imperial household - one of the highest honors in those days.

Shibata Zeshin died on July 13, 1891.


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