Box in the form of a crane. Lacquer on wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl . 18th century, Japan by unknown artist. Rijksmuseum
The body of this crane is hollow; the upper part rests on the main section and serves as a lid. The wooden box is covered in thin layers of lacquer, a typical product of East Asia. Lacquer is the resin of the Rhus vernicifera or lacquer tree. It was used in Japan, China and Korea to embellish wooden boxes, furniture and screens, normally in combination with dyes and mother-of-pearl. Lacquer is applied in layers - often a great number. For lustre, durability and tenacity, ‘genuine’ lacquer work is far superior to any Western imitations. The lacquering is inlaid with pieces of mother-of-pearl, which are arranged in such a way that they accurately represent the bird’s plumage. For instance, the artist has used red-coloured pieces to indicate the typical red marking on the crane’s head. This costly lacquered box was produced in Japan in the eighteenth century, probably as part of a dowry.
History of the Object
Dowry - In Japan, lacquer was often used for boxes in which clothing, make-up, incense and writing accessories were stored. Sets of a particular number of boxes were often presented as a dowry. The labour-intensive production technique meant that originally only noblemen and highly-placed warriors were able to order such sets. From the sixteenth century, the number of prosperous merchants who could afford to buy lacquerware grew steadily. The crane was itself probably once a wedding present. The crane is seen in Japan as a symbol of long life and of fidelity in marriage: the bird is monogamous and will even remain faithful to a sick partner.