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A fine Japanese lacquer cabinet with gilt-copper mounts for the European market


Edo period, late 17th century

The rectangular cabinet with two hinged doors opening to reveal ten various sized drawers, decorated on the doors with a teapot and a potted shrub in gold, silver and red hiramaki-e, takamaki-e, hirame and nashiji, the sides with birds perched on trees, on a black ground, with the inside of the door with sprinkled gold, nashiji and silver inlaid flower-petals, the drawer fronts decorated with flowers, trees and small pavilions in rocky landscapes (sansui), in gold hiramaki-e and takamaki-e.

H. 69.3 x W. 91 x D. 57 cm

Provenance:
- Sotheby’s New York, October 20. 1984, lot 10
- Collection of the Committee to Furnish The President’s House, Endowment

Association, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia - Sotheby’s New York, 21 April 1989
- Private collection, the Netherlands

Lacquerware originated in China and accordingly, the very first East-Asian lacquer to arrive in Europe was Chinese lacquer. After lacquer was introduced in Japan in the 6th century or earlier, it became part and parcel of Japanese culture and the Japanese eventually surpassed the lacquer of their Chinese and Korean teachers in quality and refinement. The Portuguese arrived in Japan in the early 16th century, recognizing the superior quality of Japanese lacquer, and were the first foreigners to order Japanese lacquer work to their taste at the end of the century. This Namban (for the Barbarians) lacquer is characterized by the use of gold and silver powder, together with mother-of- pearl inlays, showing dense vine patterns, covering the whole surface of the often typical Portuguese formed objects. After the Portuguese were banned from Japan in 1639, because of their proselytising, the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan. The style of lacquer ordered by the Dutch changed to a pictorial style without the use of mother-of-pearl and eventually with sparce decorations on a dominant black ground, mainly on two-door cabinets and coffers; very much in line with their Calvinist belief and fashion.
The present cabinet is a very luxurious, expensive object and initially only the VOC could invest the sums required to buy this type of lacquered cabinets. However, in 1693 the VOC had to economise and abruptly ceased to buy lacquer. Private traders took over, but they rarely could afford large pieces and reverted to smaller objects.
Larger pieces, such as the present cabinet eventually grew out of fashion
and were often cut down to be used in European furniture. Queen Mary
II (1662-1694) appears to have earned herself rather a reputation for such brutal treatment. In 1685 her advisor Constantijn Huygens reprimanded her for “having sawed, divorced, cut and slit asunder and reduced to a heap of splinters.... a gilt painted lacquer cabinet."

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