The lacquer box in the form of a peach is one of an extraordinary group of loans to the J. Paul Getty Museum from the Château de Versailles, the palace outside Paris that was the primary residence of the royal family until the French Revolution in 1789. These objects are the subject of the exhibition A Queen’s Treasure from Versailles: Marie-Antoinette’s Japanese Lacquer that displays precious examples of Japanese lacquer from the private collection of the French queen Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793). Among her most cherished possessions, the queen kept these pieces in her private sitting room at Versailles where she could admire them closely and proudly show them off to family members and to close friends.
The queen’s collection has survived to the present day in a remarkable state of preservation. However, since lacquer is a material that fades over time when exposed to light, such boxes are usually displayed closed to preserve the fragile interior surfaces. In this article, I have included images that I took of the interior of the peach-shaped box after it was unpacked and just before being installed in the exhibition, where it is shown closed. By looking closely at the remarkable design and decoration of this one box and illustrating its interior, I hope to provide a fuller sense of how these pieces functioned and why they were highly coveted as objects of wonder and delight.
A Treat for the Hand and Eyes
Like most of the boxes in Marie-Antoinette’s collection, this one is small—roughly 2 ¼ inches high by 5 inches at its widest (5.9 x 13 cm)—meaning it can be held easily in the hand so that the refined details of all its surfaces can be seen and admired at close range. Taking hold of the box, one would first be amazed at how light it is, feeling as if it weighs no more than a piece of paper. This may be surprising to someone unfamiliar with lacquer, since the golden decoration makes the box appear at first glance as if it is made of metal. Turning it over and around in one’s hands, light reflecting off the different areas of burnished and matte gold and the satin-like finish of the surface would make it gleam, causing one to wonder how such an extraordinary object would have been made.
Lacquer (urushi in Japanese) is the sap of a tree native to East Asia that is refined and applied to a core material, usually wood, such as pine, cypress, or paulownia. After being brushed on in thin layers, the coatings harden to a natural sheen. In Japan the most common type of lacquer decoration is makie (“sprinkled picture”), in which gold powder is literally sprinkled onto wet lacquer before it cures, with additional layers added to seal the metal to the surface before burnishing. The gold powder would have been sprinkled using a hollow tube of bamboo or quill, one end open for inserting the powder, the other covered with a screen of mesh for distributing the powder. The entire process, from the harvesting and processing of the raw lacquer to the application and polishing of the final layers is labor intensive, and requires the work of numerous highly skilled craftsmen to produce a single work.
On this box the texture of the peach skin is rendered with a loosely sprinkled ground of very fine gold powder on a base of black lacquer, which creates a beautifully subtle iridescent effect with a hint of the black visible beneath the golden haze. The box is further embellished with peach leaves, buds, and flowers mostly executed with a concentrated application of gold powder—so dense in fact that they appear as solid areas of flat gold. One of the flowers on the lid is made from a piece of gold foil that was cut out, set in the lacquer, and then polished, making it the brightest element on the exterior.
The box opens at its cross section. Upon lifting off the lid one is delighted to find that the interior is fitted with a tray of corresponding shape that rests on the rim of the box. Its surface is decorated with a densely coated pale-gold ground embellished with two butterflies and further peach leaves, buds, and flowers.
Lifting out the tray and turning it over, one sees the beautifully preserved underside, which is covered in a type of lacquer decoration known as nashiji—in which irregularly sized and shaped flakes of gold were sprinkled in an orange-toned lacquer, the granular effect thought to resemble pear skin. This type of ground, referred to in eighteenth-century France as aventurine, was commonly used on the interior and bottom surfaces of Japanese makie. So, as expected, upon lifting out the interior tray, one would see that the inside surface of the box is also decorated with a nashiji ground.
The Lure of Lacquer
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Japanese lacquer was widely admired throughout Asia, where it was considered to be superior in quality and beauty to that from other countries. The peach is a traditional symbol of longevity and this box is a type that could have entered the Chinese market, where the Kangxi Emperor, like Marie-Antoinette, had a similar collection of Japanese lacquer at the imperial palace (Forbidden City) in Beijing.
At the same time, collections of Japanese lacquer were being assembled across Europe, with leading examples acquired by the Danish and Swedish royal families and Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony in Germany. Marie-Antoinette inherited most of the Japanese lacquer boxes in her collection from her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Fascinated by Asian art, the empress cherished lacquerware to such a degree that she once claimed to prefer it to diamonds.
The reference to diamonds is not entirely inappropriate given the value of lacquer and its sparkling visual aspect. The use of gold and the enormous amount of labor involved in producing a single piece of high-quality Japanese lacquer made it very expensive. These were luxury items that, in Japan, were carefully stored away to preserve their beauty and were only shown to visitors as a special treat—like fine jewels or treasured paintings.
After this close look at the peach-shaped box from Marie-Antoinette’s collection, I hope that you will appreciate why this object would have been admired by the queen—how she would have held and turned it carefully in her hands, and opened it to marvel at the beautifully designed shape and exquisitely rendered decorative details.
Indeed, the exhibition at the Getty is a particularly special event since we have been permitted to display a few of the boxes open, such as the book-shaped box illustrated below, allowing visitors a rare look into precious objects that were once owned by the most famous queen of France.