Japanese Art during the Meiji Period

Japanese Shodana Cabinet on Stand
Japanese Shodana Cabinet on Stand – Sold Archive

The Shoguns, who ruled Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1867), had followed an isolationist policy called ‘Sakoku’. During this very long period of isolation, Japan severely limited its relations with the outside world.

While this self-imposed isolation helped the country’s economy and also caused the growth of local culture, it produced many negative effects in the long run. In this rigid system, the artistic community of Japan was dependent upon the imperial families for the patronage.

Meiji Period Ormolu Mounted Satsuma Porcelain Jardiniere
Meiji Period Ormolu Mounted Satsuma Porcelain Jardiniere

Samurai may not have followed the right policies in Japan, but they had amazing aesthetic and artistic tastes. The wonderful architecture and interiors of their residences and the artworks that they appreciated and treasured were reflections of their refined taste. Since Japan was totally isolated from the outside world during the Edo period, the lacquer artists, skilled potters, metalworkers and carvers only worked for Samurai patrons and religious shrines and temples, for centuries.

During the 19th century, the political and economic system of Japan started to fail and as a result, there was social unrest in the country.

The signing of the trade treaty between Japan and the United States in 1856, on unequal terms turned out to be the last nail in the coffin. Frustration against the government significantly increased. Just after two years i.e. in 1867, the government of Shogun Yoshinobu was toppled by a group of regional leaders. With the old political system, the old Samurai class system was also abolished. Mutsuhito was selected as the new emperor and ‘Meiji’ was selected as the name for the reign of the new emperor. 

A fine Meiji period Japanese lacquer casket in the manner of Akatsuka Jitoku (1871 - 1936)
A fine Meiji period Japanese lacquer casket in the manner of Akatsuka Jitoku (1871 – 1936)

The Meiji period was the time of change and innovation in Japan. Emperor Mutsuhito was inspired by western models of modernization and rigorously followed them. He also implemented policies that had a huge impact upon the institutional layout of Japanese art. He encouraged and supported Japanese artists and craftsmen to use their knowledge and skills to produce more fashionable and high quality works.

Shibayama ivory pot and cover - Sold Archive
Shibayama ivory pot and cover – Sold Archive

As Japan opened up to the outside world foreign diplomats, military advisors and travellers started visiting the country. Since this was the first time that the western world was the Japanese art, they were awestruck by its sheer quality. As a result, the demand for Japanese art pieces greatly increased. The appreciation and increase in the demand propelled the artists to experiment and they started to produce innovative works.

Japanese Gourd Tea Caddy - Sold Archive
Japanese Gourd Tea Caddy – Sold Archive

Japanese artists also found global stages to present their works to the outside world – they displayed their works at various arts and trade fairs and exhibitions in the U.S. and across Europe and left the audience astonished. To meet the increasing demands, numerous studios and workshops of all artistic disciplines were opened throughout Japan.

During this era of growth, Japan experienced two major trends in the decorative and fine arts. The Meiji Period is renowned for bronze work, exceptional ivory carvings, cloisonné, and lacquer work. The Technological Art School was established in 1876 where Italian instructors were hired to teach western methods to Japanese art students. As a result of this, Yoda i.e. western style painting was developed. On the other hand, a Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo and an American educator Ernest Fenollosa encouraged the local artists to create works according to contemporary taste by using traditional Japanese techniques and materials. This was called ‘Nihonga’, which means Japanese-style paintings.

Pair of large Japanese late 19th century Bronze Vases
Pair of large Japanese late 19th century Bronze Vases

The artworks that were produced by the Japanese craftsmen and artists during the Meiji period were of such high technical quality and exhibited such refined aesthetics that they are still being considered as one of the very finest works human hands has ever produced.