Shibata Zeshin: Lacquer Paintings

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    Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891). 'Butterfly and Wild Rose,' Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912), 1885. Hanging scroll; lacquer on paper. Gift of the James Edward and Mary Louise O'Brien Collection, 1978. (4658.1)

September 12, 2013 - January 12, 2014
Honolulu Museum of Art

Exhibition Overview

Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) was born into a prominent family of craftsmen, with his paternal grandfather and father both serving as carpenters for the shogunal government making elaborate decorative carvings for temple buildings, and a relative on his mother's side being recognized as a master lacquer artist. Zeshin followed in their steps, first training in the production of lacquer, and quickly established a reputation for high quality technical skill.

At the same time, Zeshin's interests extended far beyond lacquer and other traditional crafts, and he also studied painting in the Shijō tradition, being accepted into an eminent lineage that included some of the leading artists of this school. Early in his career he further attracted the attention of the prominent ukiyo-e print designer and painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and became his student, producing many collaborations.

This diverse training culminated with Zeshin's develop of a unique technique for painting with colored lacquers (urushi-e). He had previously made careful study of ancient lacquers in temple collections, and attained renown by recovering lost techniques. However, painting with lacquer in traditional Japanese scroll formats presented special challenges, since the lacquer had to be flexible enough to withstand cracking as scrolls were rolled and unrolled. Zeshin ultimately developed his own unique formula, achieving such remarkable success that even today he holds a place of preeminence as Japan's most celebrated urushi-e artist. Moreover, his fame spread abroad during his lifetime, and his lacquer paintings were featured in numerous international exhibitions, including the Vienna World Exposition in 1873, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, and the first Paris exhibition of Japanese painting in 1883.