Japan’s Black-and-Red Gold in the Kingdom of Denmark

Thursday, April 25th 2024

Japon, Edo Period.

A Transition style lacquer chest, ca. 1639-1645

Brass mounts. European lock. Identical to a chest kept in the Royal Collections of Denmark since the 17th century.

H. 66.5 W. 154 D. 74.5 cm.

On two blackened wood legs (later addition). Total height: 80 cm.

Provenance :
- probable commission by François Caron, V.O.C. representative in Japan ;
- private collection, The Netherlands.
Art Loss Register Certificate dated April 12, 2024.

Similar works: the twin brother of this chest has been held in the royal collections of Denmark since the reign of Frederik III: see entry nr. 20 or 62 in the 1674 Kunstkammer register (Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, inv. EAc 104).

- Impey & Jörg, "Japanese Export Lacquer 1580-1850", Hotei Publishing, Amsterdam, 2005, le coffre du Danemark on p. 94, nr. 131.
- Meiko Nagashima, "Export Lacquer: Reflection of the West in Black and Gold Makie = Japan Makie”, Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto, 2008, chest of Denmark at nr. 67.

The twin brother of a Japanese lacquer chest belonging to the King of Denmark

By the end of the 16th C., the Japanese production of lacquerware had reached such a high level of quality that its trade became a priority for the European powers that were established in the Land of the Rising Sun, namely Portugal, the Netherlands and England. In 1635, the Portuguese were ousted from Japan - ten years after the English had been - and the Archipelago underwent a period of political change. Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, ushering in the Edo Period. The Dutch East India Company took advantage of the proximity of its representative François Caron to the shogun to secure trade monopoly in Japan. Working with the best lacquer workshops, a new style known as “Pictorialist” was gradually developed. The “Namban” style that had been favored by the Portuguese, with its domed lids and shagreen and Indian mother-of-pearl inlays, was abandoned in favor of “makie”, a new technique that was both more luxurious due to its use of gold and cheaper because it was used sparingly on a black background and flat lids. The shift from the “Nanbam” to the “Pictorialist” style lasted some twenty years, until the late 1650’s. During that time, a mix between the new “makie” decorations and the cartouche frames and geometric borders of the “Nanbam” style prevailed: the “Transition” style was born.

Themes commonly found on Transition style items are traditional landscapes such as those of the Eight Views of Ômi and great literary myths such as the Tale of Genji or the Tale of the Soga Brothers. Such themes take pride of place on four exceptional chests - commissioned by Caron at the same time as our chest - that were inventoried as they departed from Japan in 1643. The largest one of them was rediscovered by our Auction House in 2013: after passing through the collections of Cardinal Mazarin, it is now held in Amsterdam (Rijskmusum, nr. AK-RAK-2013-3-1). The other three chests are/would be in London (Victoria & Albert Museum, nr. 412:1, 2-1882), Moscow (State Historical Museum), and Berlin (Charlottenburg, cabinet-mounted panel). Even on this “Fine Group” of chests, the most luxurious commission that was ever made, the decoration is framed by a cartouche on all sides except on the back. On our chest, the narrative scenes are delineated by scrolls with a frieze of flowers or “môns” running on the outer edge on all sides but the back or the inside of the lid. Its interior is lacquered in red, unlike the other chests that all had a black background except for the interior of Mazarin’s chest, whose background was covered with a gold-powdered aventurine lacquer. Between 1639 and 1645, the directives of the 17 representatives of the V.O.C. expressly called for vermillion red or green backgrounds - not black. One hundred years later, gold on red lacquer backgrounds - albeit from China - would once again delight collectors, as those skillfully reused by cabinetmaker B.V.R.B. for Machault d’Arnouville or the Dukes of La Rochefoucauld-Doudeauville. Our chest, which was made in Japan, can therefore be precisely dated back to these pivotal years.

Including Dutch-imported lacquer works into their collection was the prerogative of the greatest European princes. In the second half of the 17th C., the Kings of France, Denmark, Sweden and Saxony as well as the Duke of Orléans and the Princes of Condé and Lorraine had one in their collections. Shortly after Frederik II of Denmark’s death in 1674, a list was drawn of his cabinet of curiosities, in which a chest looking very much like ours – same structure, type of decoration and dimensions (H. 66, W. 152, D. 74 cm) – appears; it now belongs in the collections of the National Museum of Denmark (EAc. 104). The decoration of the Danish chest is a variation on the same theme as the one of ours, namely the Eight Views of Ômi and the Surroundings of Lake Biwa, where the Tale of Genji was written. The records for this chest, which can be traced back to the 1950s, are more recent than those of the Royal Danish collections.

Their common characteristics suggest however that before they went separate way, both were part of the same commission placed to a single workshop by the V.O.C. and its representative François Caron. How did the Copenhagen chest find its way into the collections of the King of Denmark? Perhaps was it at the end of February 1658, when the Treaty of Roskilde was signed after negotiations from Dutch diplomats ended the conflict between Sweden and Denmark at the height of the Thirty Years War? A few weeks earlier, in January 1658, Mazarin had acquired a stock of lacquerware unsold by the V.O.C. since 1643. The Company which had put lacquer commissions on hold since 1651 due to a lack of customers, placed a new order in July 1658 via its Japanese trading post. The “Nanbam” page was definitively turned and replaced by the “Transition” style that was favored by the sovereigns of the Old Continent. Henceforth, the lacquer works arriving in Europe from Japan would meet the standards of the “Pictorialist” style for the next 100 years, making this chest a rare piece of evidence of a key period in the history of world trade and taste for the Orient.

36th Garden Party Auction
May 24-27, 2024

at château d'Artigny
92, rue de Monts 37250 Montbazon, France.
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