During the Ming period mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer was used extensively for the production of furniture and decor, food receptacles and serving trays, as well as implements for a writer’s use and enjoyment such as the present writing box. Palatial buildings and lush gardens for imperial, scholarly, or even mythological gatherings and celebrations were popular subjects on such lacquer wares of the Ming period and boasted glorious precedents produced during the Song and Yuan dynasties. The greater naturalism of those earlier wares was achieved by more accurately depicted proportions and spatial relationships as well as carefully portrayed three-dimensional effects and lavish attention to minutiae. Certain areas in this sixteenth-century example are, not surprisingly, less painstakingly worked, such as the pillars on the building which are left quite plain, whereas the detailing of the figures and their dress, as well as the vegetation, are quite fully detailed. Little of the overall surface was not given some attention; virtually no corner was left untouched or left out of the decorative plan. Furthermore, spatial relationships are quite effectively conveyed within this context with the diminution in size of images and their elevation in the picture frame producing a feeling of real space and depth.
The decorated base is similar to those of two writing boxes in Japanese collections, both with palatial gatherings on their lids (figs. 1-5). The images on the bases appear quite naturalistic by contrast because of their subject matter, that is, birds with flowering branches or stalks of bamboo. The subjects, however, are quite distilled, plucked from a natural context and presented against the dark foil of the lacquer ground. These spare and refined yet beautifully detailed and rendered designs bring to mind paintings on silk or paper which were in vogue from the Song period onward. On two counts, then, the decorative images on the present box would have been most attractive to an educated Chinese individual.
Bottom of box
View from side
Fig. 1: Rectangular lacquer box inlaid with mother-of-pearl design of palatial gathering, Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century A.D., Hakutsuru Art Museum, Hyogo, after Chugoko no Raden, Tokyo, 1981, fig. 88-1, p. 129.
Fig. 2: Top of Hakutsuru Museum box in figure 7, after ibid., fig. 88-2.
Fig. 3: Bottom of Hakutsuru Museum box in figure 7, after ibid., fig. 88-4.
Fig. 4: Rectangular lacquer box inlaid with mother-of-pearl design of palatial gathering, Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century A.D., Eisei Bunko, Tokyo, after Chugoko no Raden, Tokyo, 1981, fig. 91-1.
Fig. 5: Bottom of Eisei Bunko box in figure 10, after ibid., fig. 91-3.