Koto (Harp) Cover of Flower CartJapan, Showa Perio53 1/2 x 13 1/2 in.(135.89 x 34.29 cm) silk embroidery
Private Collection
Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert
The Meiji Era marks the restoration of Imperial Rule to Japan, after several centuries of government by the samurai class, and the rapid modernization of the country. Between 1639 and 1854 Japan had been closed to foreign contact except through the Dutch and the Chinese in controlled trading stations at Nagasaki. During this time, the Daimyo, or feudal lords, who each governed a province, sponsored the best artists. These retained artists had a guaranteed income for life, while others worked independently to provide the same kind of luxury goods for the rich merchant class. This system allowed skills to develop to a high degree, with apprenticeships for painters, potters, metalworkers, and other artisans often extended over ten years or more, thus allowing the preservation of traditional skills, and the persistence of high quality work. Rapid Westernization followed the Imperial Restoration which changed the traditional way of life and artists turned their long-established skills to making objects to suit the Western market. In 1867, the year before the restoration, the government had sent a delegation to the Paris Exposition led by the fourteen-year-old son of the shogun. Independently the great samurai clans of Saga and Satsuma in Kyushu sent deputations carrying ceramics and various antiquities to Paris. From that time forward, the craze for Japanese wares swept Europe and America.

The Emperor Meiji, who replaced the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, as Head of State, was a man of vision and culture. He encouraged the adoption of Western customs, fashion, education and industry, and above all the continuation of the traditional arts and crafts of Japan in a form adapted to worldwide tastes and expectations. The Emperor personally bought many contemporary works of art at a series of Japanese National Industrial Exhibitions. In 1890 he instituted a system of honorific appointments to the Imperial Household called the Teishitsu Geigei-In or “Imperial Artists”. These elite artists were commissioned to make pieces for presentation to both Japanese and foreign dignitaries and had the right to mark them with the chrysanthemum Mon, or badge, of the Imperial Family.

Japan’s textile industry was one of the first to adopt Western science and technology, and thus the Meiji era produced some of the highest quality silk textiles. The engravings of oil paintings inspired the embroideries, with the artist of the painting and the artist at the textile factory maintaining a close relationship. Japanese embroidery technique goes back more than one thousand years. It originated in China and was eventually introduced to Japan by Korean artisans; around the same time Buddhism entered Japan. In Japan, colored silks were embroidered with long soft stitches in untwisted silk threads. Flowers, birds, bold flowing lines, and abstract motifs are common in Japanese textiles, and the designs achieve a feeling of calm restraint through their spacious distribution. Also characteristic of Japanese textiles is the use of gold and silver thread. The Japanese developed a special method of creating metal threads, in which a layer of gold or silver was deposited on to rice paper, which was then cut into fine strips and wrapped around a thread core.