Vibrantly and painstakingly crafted, Meiji Satsuma earthenware literally reflects Japanese artistry, history and culture, from the featured themes and motifs to the art form’s minute liquid gold embellishments and ivory to yellow fine-crackled glazes.
Although created expressly for export, Satsuma are richly hand-painted works with stylized Japanese themes that reflect how their creators believed Westerners perceived their country — or how they wanted it to be perceived.
The Satsuma art form was created during the Meiji Dynasty (1868-1912) in Kyushu, a historic ceramics center in southern Japan. By the late 19th century, Japan’s artists began participating in the Great International Fairs, for the first time promoting contact with the outside world. Their massive pairs of Satsuma vases, bowls and jardinières, meticulously detailed and featuring subjects foreign to western taste, caused an immediate sensation through both America and Europe. To satisfy this craze, the Satsuma techniques spread from Kyushu studios to those in Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, Yokohama and elsewhere.
Many master painters, eager for business and fame, signed the bases of their creations with Japanese Kanji marks, often in cartouche. Some cleverly included their names or the names of their studios in their artwork, for example, written on scrolls. In this way, Sozan, Kinkozan, Kozan and Ryozan, for example, became known for their characteristic techniques, style, subject matter and harmony between form and design.
Noted for their dense ornamentation, Satsuma can be embellished with borders of varying types and patterns, including enamel, geometric, brocade, scroll, latticework and lush florals. Many Satsuma reflect the Japanese love of nature by including flocks of birds, sprays of wisteria, flowering trees and winding streams. Others display picnics, market scenes, holidays, celebrations, processions and the many festivals that enrich Japanese life. Themes can even include Samurai epics, oriental mythological representations or elements of demonology.
Dressed in brocaded kimonos, the human subjects include geishas, Noh actors, musicians and wise men, who are shown leisurely strolling, flying kites, conversing, playing flutes, offering gifts, reading scrolls, bestowing blessings or observing the moon.
Although rendered with miniature brushstrokes — perhaps, at times, with single hairs from rats — the subjects’ facial expressions reflect the full range of human emotions. Several personalities have actually been identified.
“Some today describe Satsuma as an undervalued art, neglected by both scholars and collectors,” observes passionate collector Dr. Afshine Emrani, who displays his favorites at Some of My Favorite Things. “But they are valued very highly in price.”
Serious collectors seek pieces by Osakan Yabu Meizan, which are distinguished by their extremely fine work, or by Nakamura Baikei, which are very rare. Baikei’s pieces, which feature skillfully enameled, imaginative motifs varying from whimsical dancing monkeys to violent archers, always include lengthy inscriptions extolling the merits of his work and how much effort they took to paint.
“Fortunately, the time required to reproduce something that even remotely resembles a quality piece of Satsuma has kept reproductions out of the higher end of the market,” explains dealer Matthew Baer, of Ivory Tower Antiques. “The very low end, however, is riddled with reproductions from China that bear little resemblance to Satsuma. They are often stamped “Royal Satsuma” or “Satsuma Made in China” in English.
Figural and sculpted Satsuma are purely decorative. Vari-shaped incense burners, vases, boxes, flower pots, plates and tea caddies, though modeled after functional objects, were intended to be decorative, as well. This is because earthenware, which is fired at a lower temperature than porcelain, stains with usage.
Satsuma vases, which often come in pairs and measure several feet high, may be divided into three or four panels. A single vase commonly depicts contrasting themes, such as a warrior scene, a harmonious nature scene, beautiful geishas and a hanging basket with a puppy eyeing a butterfly.
Working with a knowledgeable dealer is a great way to take the step from reading about Satsuma to actually handling the pieces and eventually purchasing them.
“Today’s collectors vary,” observes Jean Schaefer, a specialist in Meiji Period arts at Flying Crane Antiques. “Some seek only those works created by the most ingenious, inspiring makers, known for their unique, immediately identifiable characteristics. Others purchase solely according to cost and size.”
Good dealers are happy to work with new collectors, teaching them how to recognize good pieces.
“A small vase by a great Satsuma master can cost many times more than a large, ‘imposing’ one and will increase not only in value as time goes by, but in enjoyment,” Schaefer says. “We advise our budding collectors to buy the best — one exquisite piece by a major maker rather than several ordinary pieces.”
Prices for entry level pieces will generally be in the hundreds of dollars. Very nice quality items will generally run from about $2,000 to $5,000. At the very top end, prices tend to increase almost exponentially, with true masterpieces running from $25,000 through $50,000 and more. Of course, there will always be the proverbial sleeper found somewhere for much less, but one can search for a lifetime without discovering it.
“Satsuma prices are primarily determined by the quality of their artwork, their artists, condition, form, and motifs,” Baer says. “Satsuma is all about detail, and a truly fine piece will look even better under the scrutiny of a loupe than to the naked eye. A masterpiece will have good proportions in the figures, and the details will not only show up in the focal point of the scenes, but also in the periphery and in the background. Pieces that include unusual subject matters, such as animals or mythological creatures are generally more desirable, but this certainly does not exclude well-executed more common themes. Some very fine pieces exhibit a great deal of artistic restraint which requires an even greater sense of balance to achieve the desired outcome.”
The latest book on this subject, Satsuma: The Romance of Japan by Louis Lawrence, published in 2011, shows extraordinarily fine examples of this unique art. It is only available through Satsuma Collector.
Melody Amsel-Arieli is an American-Israeli freelance writer whose articles appear in collecting, genealogical, and historical magazines across Australia, the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. She is the author of “Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov” (Avotaynu 2002) and the forthcoming book, “Jewish Lives: 1750-1950” (Pen & Sword circa 2013).