WASHINGTON, DC.- A recent finding by Shin’ichi Saitoh, a curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum, determined the identity of the original owner of a Japanese ceremonial palanquin in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Saitoh’s research confirmed that the palanquin was created in 1856 for the wedding procession of the princess Atsuhime, to Tokugawa Iesada (1824-58), the 13th shogun of the Tokugawa family, who ruled from 1603-1867. Atsuhime’s life story is the focus of a novel by Tomiko Miyao, “Tenshoin Atsuhime,” and is currently the spotlight of a 50-episode drama series airing on the Japanese network NHK.
The first international showing of the Sackler’s palanquin will be at the Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum, Dec. 16 through Feb. 1, 2009, for its special exhibition on palanquins in Edo organized by Saitoh. The palanquin returns to the Sackler in the spring of 2009, during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, March 28 - April 12, 2009. It will be on view in the exhibition, “A Shogun’s Wedding: The Princess Atsuhime’s Palanquin,” from March 21 - April 9, 2009.
The Sackler palanquin is an example of a “norimono,” a type of conveyance carried by bearers. Ann Yonemura, curator of Japanese Art at the Freer and Sackler galleries, discovered the palanquin in a Sotheby’s London auction in 1984 and identified the palanquin’s elite origin through its circular family crests. Research led her to believe that the palanquin was commissioned for the bride of a top-ranking descendant of the Tokugawa shogun’s family. Noting the importance of the palanquin, the Sackler Gallery acquired the piece in 1985, before the gallery’s opening in 1987. Yonemura’s research was published in “Art and Authority: A Tokugawa Palanquin” in the museum’s journal, Asian Art (1989), and the palanquin was highlighted in two exhibitions at the Sackler Gallery in 1988-89 and again in 1996.
Upon acquisition, the Sackler Gallery’s conservation department began cleaning and treating the palanquin’s sumptuous exterior and interior. Each fitting and painting was removed, treated and returned to its original position. Gilt-copper fittings serve as supports for carrying the 15-foot beam, hinges, handles and other ornamental reinforcements along the framework. The palanquin’s wood exterior is coated in black lacquer and lavishly decorated in gold “maki-e,” a Japanese technique where gold is sprinkled onto wet lacquer in patterns. In contrast to the bold exterior, the interior is a private space, like a miniature palace room, intended primarily for the bride’s appreciation. Paintings on gold-leafed paper also embellish the interior walls. Three paintings depict scenes from the Japanese literary classic, “The Tale of Genji,” written in the 11th century by a noblewoman like the bride herself. The rear panel is a painting replete with auspicious symbols of longevity such as pines, cranes and tortoises.