Little Beauties: Japanese Netsukes

Japanese netsukes are small toggles once used to attach pouches or cases to kimono sashes. The making of netsukes has been elevated into an art form over the centuries, with netsuke carvers often putting into enormous effort to achieve a desired expression or surface details. Rare woods and precious ivory are often used for novel compositions. Embedding one material into another requires the utmost precision, especially when those materials possess different physical properties, as with wood and ivory. The examples below are all from the Metropolitan Museum, New York and the British Museum, London. Examine them closely; you will see that there can be beauty in the very small.

Netsuke of Daruma yawning. Artist: Ohara Mitshuhiro, Edo period, mid-19th century. Ivory. H: 5.2 cm. British Museum.

Netsuke, box with a Japanese couple making love. Artist: Masano (Kyoto). Edo period, 18th century. Ivory, gold and lacquer. W: 4.9 cm. British Museum.

The delicately carved box opens to reveal a couple embracing passionately under a quilt (lacquered), affording them some privacy. The woman is visible from the front, and the man’s back and genitals can be seen from the other side. The inside of the top of the lid is lacquered with gold paint, and a small metal clasp and gold have been inserted as a repair.

Netsuke of a sleeping cat. Early 19th century. Ivory. W: 4.3 cm. British Museum.

Netsuke of a reclining goat. Artist: Kaigyokusai Masatsugu. Meiji period, late 1800s. Ivory, with eyes inlaid in coral and dark horn pupils. H: 2.9 cm. British Museum.

Masatami Netsuke of a Female Monkey Holding a Nut while her Baby Crawls on her Back, 19th century Japan, Ivory, horn; H. 1 1/2 in. (3.8 cm); W. 1 3/8 in. (3.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum, NY.

Netsuke of Children Playing, Medium: ivory. H. 2.7 cm; W. 3 cm; L. 3.7 cm. Artist: Ryū-min. 19th century. Metropolitan Museum, NY.

Netsuke of Priest, 19th century Japan, Ivory; H. 2 1/8 in. (5.4 cm) . Metropolitan Museum, NY.

Netsuke of a Man Yawning
Medium: ivory. H. 3.5 cm; W. 2.5 cm. 19th century. Metropolitan Museum, NY.

Netsuke of Ox with Bukudo, Medium: ivory and wood. H. 2 cm; W. 4.5 cm. Artist: Tokoku. 19th century. Metropolitan Museum, NY.

Leave a Reply