Shibata Zeshin 柴田是真 (1807-1891), Panel with design of farmhouse in the snow at Sano 雪中佐野(「鉢の木」)図蒔絵額面, Meiji era (1868–1912), 1883. Estimate £80,000 – 120,000 (€100,000 – 150,000). Photo: Bonhams

Wood; the roiro-nuri ground decorated in a range of lacquer techniques including extensive silver takamaki-e to depict the snow on the ground and roof, the plants and pots, and other details; tetsusabi-nuri for the clay walls; togidashi maki-e for the straw matting and the floor of the tokonoma alcove; the details in gold and silver takamaki-e, gold hirame, and other finishes; the panel depicting a scene based on the Noh play Hachi no ki (see below), with the impoverished former courtier Tsuneyo Genzaemon about to offer hospitality to Lord Hōjō Tokiyori disguised as a wandering monk; Tokiyori kneels at the door of Genzaemon’s hut, his hat and oi(priest’s carrying frame) hanging on the wall and in the alcove behind him, his horse in a shed outside eating from a wooden bucket; farming implements visible behind the horse; a snow-laden pine tree overhead; Genzaemon seen through a window, seated with a juzu (rosary) in his hands; in the foreground, snow-covered miniature plum, cherry, and pine trees on a platform over a pond; the reverse plain black lacquer over cloth with two vertical struts each with a ring fitting for hanging the panel
Signed in gold maki-e Gyōnen nanajūnana Koma Zeshin sei行年七十七 古満是真製 (Made by Koma Zeshin, aged 77)
37.8 × 61 cm (14 7/8 × 24 in.)
With fitted wooden tomobako storage box inscribed outside Maki-e setchū Sano no zu gakumen 蒔絵 雪中佐野之図 額面 (Panel with maki-e design of Sano in the snow); signed inside Koma Zeshin sei 古満是真製 (made by Koma Zeshin) with seal Nanajūnana-sō 七十七叟 (aged 77); accompanied by an auction slip recording that the panel was sold (on 14 April 1926, see below) for 3,750 yen and that the auction was held by Matsunaga Genkichi 松永源吉, Hokura Hikoichi 保倉彦一, and Hokura Hikohachi 保倉彦八; cloth-bound outer storage box.

Provenance: Oshiki Collection

Exhibited and published: Shinjōji, Niigata, 1926
Nezu Bijutsukan 2012, cat. no.53
Tōkyō Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan 2004, cat. no. I-99

Notes: Starting with a view of Mount Fuji shown at the 1873 Vienna World Exposition, during the last two decades of his career Shibata Zeshin produced a number of large-scale lacquer panels. Clearly intended to emulate the scale and impact of framed Western oils and establish lacquering as an independent painting medium, these panels are among Zeshin’s most unusual and striking works. Most of them depict scenes from Japanese nature, but in 1877 he exhibited a panel featuring a hothouse and bonsai trees (Gōke 1981b, pl. 120) at the first Naikoku Kangyō Hakurankai (National Industrial Exhibition) and the success of this piece, now in the Imperial Collections, might have inspired him to tackle the more ambitious scene, also based around buildings, depicted here. The present lot appears to be the only Zeshin panel to feature human figures. Its explicit narrative theme is in strong contrast to traditional Japanese story-telling lacquers, which often make only understated, hard-to-catch, references to the texts on which they are based. Here Zeshin, very likely influenced by contemporary Western history painting, adopts an explicit approach and includes virtually all the essential components of a famous Noh play’s plot: the two protagonists, the snowy landscape, Tokiyori’s horse, and the three plants which Genzaemon sacrifices in order to fulfil his duties as host.

In the Noh play Hachi no ki a wandering priest, later identified as the great warlord Hōjō Tokiyori (1227–1263) who has adopted this disguise in order to ‘acquaint himself with the needs of his subjects’, seeks shelter from Tsuneyo Genzaemon, in reality the dispossessed Lord of Sano and a former retainer of Tokiyori. After some hesitation, Genzaemon’s wife persuades her husband to let the priest enter and Genzaemon offers to use his three precious miniature trees—plum, cherry, and pine—as firewood to keep his guest warm; he then reveals his identity to Tokiyori, but remains unaware that Tokiyori is his master. Six months later Tokiyori returns with his army, reveals himself to Genzaemon and as a reward for the latter’s hospitality returns his lands in Sano to him, along with domains in other parts of the country: ‘Plum-field in Kaga, Cherrywell in Etchū and Pine-branch in Kōzuke’ (Waley 1921, pp. 134–149).

This is one of a small number of panels made by Zeshin in the early 1880s for wealthy landowner patrons in Niigata Prefecture (former Echigo Province). Both the construction of the tomobako and the style of its inscriptions are very close to the tomobako for a panel depicting an offering to the gods at the start of the planting season, completed in 1882, that is one of the finest works in the Khalili Collection (Earle 1996, cat. no. 27). The Khalili piece was made for Sasaki Shōhei, a great Niigata landowner, and was sold in 1931; the present lot, sold at auction in April 1926, was made for the Oshiki, another prominent Niigata family who owned several works by Zeshin. According to the 1926 catalogue, Oshiki Genjirō, grandfather of the vendor, was a close friend of Zeshin and owned so many of his works that for people in Niigata Prefecture the mere mention of Zeshin’s name called to mind the Oshiki family; a similarly warm relationship existed between the Oshiki and Zeshin’s second son Shinsai (Shinjōji 1926, Gōke 1981b, p. 171). Both families, Sasaki and Oshiki, lived in Nakakanbara District.

Zeshin made full use of lacquer’s power to both emulate and outdo oil painting, applying especially thick takamaki-e to convey the weight of the snow on the roof; the smoothly polished takamaki-e snow contrasts with both the rough-textured tetsusabi-nuri of the rustic clay walls and the intricate togidashi maki-e used for the straw and wood floor coverings. Zeshin was evidently satisfied with this composition since he repeated it, with variations, in a 1888 lacquer painting of a farm building (Nezu Bijutsukan 2012, cat. no. 122).