Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Letter Box with Pine, Bamboo, Plum Blossom, and Family Crests

Edo period (1615–1868)
19th century
Lacquered wood with gold and silver hiramaki-e, cut-out gold foil on nashiji ground (part of a wedding set)
L. 15 3/8 in. (39.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1910
Accession Number:
Not on view
This covered box, part of a wedding trousseau, comprised of thirty-one pieces, represents late Edo-period maki-e (decoration in gold and/or silver sprinkled powder) art at its finest. The Shimazu family, lords of Satsuma in Kyushu, ordered this traditional trousseau most likely for Taka-hime, who was married to Matsudaira Sadakazu, lord of Kuwana (Ise Province), around 1830.

The items of the wedding set are decorated with various auspicious motifs. The evergreen pine represents longevity and also symbolizes renewal. The fast-growing, springy, but at the same time very strong and enduring bamboo also stands for longevity and represents endurance and strength. The plum blossoms are the first flowers of spring, representing the renewal of nature. The combination of the "Three Friends of Winter"—originating from China—is associated with celebration, and considered to be an auspicious symbol. Cherry blossoms, admired in Japan for their subtle color and the fact that they fall at the peak of their beauty, also have auspicious connotations. The combination of the pine, bamboo, and cherry motifs (reflecting more of the Japanese aesthetic than the Chinese) is very rare. The explanation for the unusual matching might be related to the Matsudaira family crest, which is a stylized plum flower in a circle. The medicine chest and the medicine box show a different pattern, chrysanthemums beside a river, which refers to the legend of the Chrysanthemum boy, Kikujidou, symbolizing the achievement of immortality by drinking chrysanthemum dewdrops.

This wedding set can be divided into four groups according to iconography, with several subgroups according to function. All of the groups include decoration executed in gold and silver maki-e on a pear-skin background, and all have the designs of the two family crests. The most simply decorated of the groups features semi-high and flat maki-e, as well as foil application. Another group of works has decorations of pine, bamboo-grass, plum blossoms, and demonstrates the use of an additional technique, that of line drawing. A third group of lacquers has the motif of chrysanthemums by a river. This more complex group includes not only all of the techniques seen in the second group, but also techniques such as gradation-sprinkling, geometric gold foil cuttings, and carving with gold or silver foil application. The most elaborate group consists of lacquers decorated with pine, bamboo, and cherry blossoms, and employs all of the decorative techniques of the third group. In addition, the insides of this last group of objects are executed in the pear-skin technique, and their silver fittings are covered with black lacquer at spots. Most of the fittings show the Matsudaira family crest on a rapeseed background; some fittings feature both Shimazu and Matsudaira family crests. Arabesque patterns are also depicted on some of the fittings. (10.7.1–.32)
William Churchill Oastler , New York (until 1900; sale, American Art Association, 13 April 1900, no. 629, to Kaldenberg).; [ F. W. Kaldenberg and Sons , NY, 1910; sold to MMA].
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