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Cosmetic Box (tebako)




Edo period (1615-1868)


Cosmetic Box (tebako)


About 1800


Maki-e lacquer on wood, pewter


12.8 x 21.4 x 25.8 cm


Gift of F. Gerald Robinson, inv. 1962.Ee.4.1-3


Archeology and World Cultures

This cosmetic box (tebako) is decorated with autumnal grasses and flowers on the exterior faces and with the moon disappearing into clouds on the interior tray, well-known references to the Musashi plain around Edo. The stylized motifs are applied in maki-e, a technique in which gold powder is sprinkled onto the lacquered surface while it is still wet. Lacquer, a natural polymer deriving from the resinous sap of the Asian sumac tree (rhus verniciflua), was mastered in Japan during the Nara period (710-794). To achieve the shiny, waterproof surface, artisans applied up to 30 coats of the substance, each of which required a long drying period. Time-consuming and costly, the process was limited to objects destined for the court and the wealthy. During the late 16th and early 17th century, feudal lords (daimyō) and shoguns commissioned lacquerware lavishly decorated with maki-e and mother-of-pearl motifs. Lacquerware achieved its zenith with the Rimpa school under the patronage of Edo’s merchant class and the thriving culture of the floating world. Since the early 10th century, the literati had embraced idyllic autumnal scenery as a metaphor for love, the transient nature of life and the isolation of man.

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