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Mother-of-Pearl: A Tradition in Asian Lacquer

A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin

About the show:

The serene second-floor Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for Chinese Decorative Arts in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's north wing are the ideal and appropriate setting for Mother-of-Pearl: A Tradition of Asian Lacquer for two reasons. The space's general tranquility allows for silent appreciation of the precious works on view. And many of the objects in this special exhibition come from the keen-eyed Irvings' impressive collection. This 50-piece ensemble features mostly small-scale portable objects dating from the Eighth through Nineteenth Centuries. Each displays the exquisite mother-of-pearl or pearl shell technique of ornamentation practiced by artists in China, Korea, Japan, Thailand and India.

Mother-of-pearl is the term applied to the luminous substance obtained from the interior of shells from mollusks such as the green snail, nautilus and sea-ear, aquatic animal species found in fresh and marine warm waters. Asian peoples cultivated these creatures for their hard outer coverings' interior lustrous qualities. Once harvested, their shells were cut into precise pieces to form distinct images in mosaic once assembled. Lacquer, the extremely toxic adhesive material that bound these brilliant components together, is a milky white or light gray resin obtained in its liquid state from the lac tree (rhus verniciflua). Having been exposed to oxygen and hardened at 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, this then-plasticized substance is durable and resistant to most of the elements. Highly luminous shell fragments, cut by trained artists, were delicately arranged in wet lacquer on an object, forming a distinct image for decorative, narrative or ceremonial purposes.

The earliest evidence in Asia for the pearl shell technique, fragmentary as it is, dates from Bronze Age China's Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600-1050 B.C.). The Chinese mother-of-pearl ornamental tradition in art was passed down through the centuries. Under its native Ming emperors (1368-1644 A.D.), China recovered from nearly a century of foreign political domination by the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 A.D.). Their authority already weakened in the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries, the Ming rulers prescribed and enforced a strict code of artistic decoration for imperial artworks in ceramic, fabric, lacquer and metal. Their artistic standards were intended to glorify the perceived virtuous beneficence of the Ming government. One superb example of masterful craftsmanship created during this period is a Dish with Figures in a Landscape (16th Century A.D.). This black lacquer plate with mother-of-pearl inlay, nearly 11 inches in diameter, features a moonlit scene populated by two gentlewomen and their attendants. The sketchy quality of the landscape's fauna indicates that the artist was influenced by the development of woodblock prints used in sixteenth-century China to illustrate works of literature.

Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Used with permission
Dish with Figures in a Landscape
China, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), 16th Century
Black lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay
Diam. 10 5/8 in. (27 cm)
Promised Gift of Florence and Herbert Irving
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Indian Coffer (a chest for valuable items) dating to the early Seventeenth Century includes in its rectangular surface decoration thick pieces of pearl shell arranged to create five stylized trees rendered geometrically and scrolling foliage behind them. Objects such as this one were created in western India during the years of the Mughal Dynasty (1526-1707) for domestic consumption as well as export to European royal, ecclesiastical and commercial clients. The inventory of Portugal's King Manuel I (1469-1521) included a casket decorated with Indian mother-of-pearl inlay, while that of France's King Francis I (1494-1547), the patron of Italian High Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1591), listed a chair and bed with pearl shell decoration from the same period.

Image © Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; 
Used with permission
India, Gujarat, Mughal Dynasty (1526-1707),
early 17th Century
Wood with mother-of-pearl on lacquer; silver mounts
W. 16 in. (40.8 cm)
Purchase-Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Fund
© Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, D.C.

The mother-of-pearl technique arrived in Thailand possibly as early as the Ninth Century A.D. By the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, it was used extensively to embellish thrones and doors used at court and in temples. It also figured prominently in the production of diplomatic presents. A Document Box (late 18th Century) with elegant floral ornamentation was designed to hold long handwritten and illustrated Buddhist texts. The pink and green tones of the pearl shell pieces enhance the luxuriant quality of the box's decorative patterns.

Image © Maxine N. Dunitz Collection; 
Used with permission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Document Box
Thailand, Bangkok Period, late 18th Century
Black lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay
L. 24 1/2 in. (62 cm)
© Maxine N. Dunitz Collection

Chinese and Indian artists combined mother-of-pearl and ivory in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. A Pair of Ducks (1736-85) in The Metropolitan Museum of Art represent marital happiness in Chinese art. Possibly a wedding gift, covers on the birds' backs reveal cavities that could have held incense or some other ceremonial substance. Inscribed pearl shell plaques on the ducks' covers date them to the Qianlong Period (1736-85) and its emperor's cultured court.

Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 
Used with permission
Pair of Ducks
China, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period (1736-85)
Wood with mother-of-pearl, ivory and glass
L. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm)
Anonymous gift, in memory of Mrs. Nina Houser
Peebles, 1956
56.32.1, 2a,b
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The elegant works of art in Mother-of-Pearl: A Tradition in Asian Lacquer amply describe the development of pearl shell ornamentation in Asia and its dissemination to Western Europe. The amazing luminosity of inlaid mother-of-pearl heightened the preciousness of objects decorated in this manner and the ones on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art serve to illustrate this point.

About the catalogue:

Leidy, Denise Patry. Mother-of-Pearl:
A Tradition in Asian Lacquer
(exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum
of Art, 2006.

The special exhibition's 80-page softcover catalogue describes the Asian artistic tradition of mother-of pearl and lacquer artwork from earliest times through the Nineteenth Century. The book's fully illustrated introductory essay contains color images of many objects not in the show.

For further reading:

Watt, James C.Y. and Barbara Brennan.
East Asian Lacquer: The Florence and
Herbert Irving Collection.
New York: The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991.

"Mother-of-Pearl: A Tradition in Asian Lacquer" is on view from December 2, 2006 through April 1, 2007 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82 Street, New York, NY 10028-0198 (Telephone: 212-535-7710; Website). The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM and Friday and Saturday from 9:30 AM to 9:00 PM. SUGGESTED admission is $20.00 for adults, $15.00 for senior citizens (65 and older) and $10.00 for students with valid school identification. This includes same-day admission to The Cloisters in Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park. Paid parking is available in The Museum Garage.


From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.

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