Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) was a Japanese artist and master of lacquer painting, who was called “the greatest varnisher in Japan.”
Zeshin was born and raised in Edo (modern Tokyo). His grandfather, Izumi Chobei, and father Ichigoro were carpenters and skilled woodcarvers who worked in temples. Ichigoro, who took the surname of Shibata’s wife, was also an accomplished artist. Family traditions determined his future vocation and helped him become a remarkable master. At the age of eleven, Kametaro, as Zeshin was called in childhood, became an apprentice to a varnish maker named Koma Kansai II, from whom he learned traditional maki-e techniques. At the age of sixteen, young Shibata began studying painting with the famous artist Suzuki Nanrei. As a tribute to his teachers, Shibata, who abandoned the name Kametaro, began signing his works with the name Reisai (“Rei” from Suzuki Nanrei and “sai” from Koma Kansai).
But we know this master under the name Zeshin, the meaning of which is translated as “real” or “true”. He received this nickname while studying with Nanrei, and stuck to it until the end of his life. The meaning of the name goes back to an old Chinese tale about a ruler who invited many artists to the palace. All the artists showed due respect to the king, bowed to him and observed etiquette. And only one of them came half naked, did not bow and sat on the floor, licking his brush. The ruler exclaimed: “This is a real artist!”, that is, Zeshin.
Zeshin mixed his varnishes with various substances to achieve different colors and textures. He invented a method of painting with varnish juice directly on paper glued with a solution of alum and animal glue to prevent the varnish from peeling off. Painting with varnish, a viscous and sticky substance, is extremely difficult. “The Narrow Road to Shu” demonstrates the artist’s incredible skill in recreating fine details. This Chinese subject was very popular in Japanese painting of the 19th century: a path in the Shu Mountains in southwest China, where the Tang Emperor Ming Huang fled with his concubine Yang Guifei.
Beginning in 1869, Zeshin began to carry out orders for the decoration of furniture and art objects for the imperial court, and he was soon appointed official representative of Japan at several international exhibitions, including exhibitions in Vienna in 1873, Philadelphia the following year and in Paris. In 1891, Zeshin became a professor at the University of Fine Arts and received the title of Imperial Artist – Teishitsu Gigein. The honorary title of Imperial Artist was awarded only to the most famous and illustrious artists in the period from 1890 to 1944. Only 79 masters have received this title, and Zeshin is the only one who has received recognition in two areas of art: painting and maki-e (varnish).
Ikeda Taishin (1825-1903) was Shibata Zeshin’s first student and remained his lifelong friend. Taishin became an independent artist around 1870, and in 1896 received the title of Imperial Household Artist (Teishitsu gigein).