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Mother-of-Pearl: A Tradition in Asian Lacquer

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.

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

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




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