Inrô: Figures in a landscaped garden, 18th century
Red lacquer; H. 1 9/16 in. (3.9 cm), W. 1 3/4 in. (4.4 cm), D. 1 1/4 in. (3.2 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1910 (10.211.2081)
Lacquer is the refined sap of a deciduous tree of the sumac family. Applied in extremely thin layers in order to allow time for hardening, a single piece requires the application of numerous base layers before surface decoration is carved or applied. When exposed to oxygen and humidity, the lacquer hardens or polymerizes. As it hardens or cures, lacquer forms a lustrous, durable coating impervious to moisture. It is used to seal and preserve porous surfaces of various materials, usually wood, but sometimes it is applied to or combined with other materials. Pigments can be added during the layered application process, allowing darker colors to emerge as the carver cuts through the top layer, in this case red. Carved lacquer, a tradition more closely associated with Chinese practice, became a popular medium for netsuke artisans in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Japan.