The Japanese objects in this section of the exhibition belonged to Charles Parsons (1824–1905), a prominent St. Louis banker who bequeathed his large collection of paintings and decorative arts to Washington University in 1905. Parsons probably started his collection of Japanese art on a voyage around the world in 1876. Upon his return, he pursued Japanese wares though a sales agent, including porcelains, swords, silks, screens, lacquerware, netsuke, and okimono. In 1894 Parsons started his second world tour in Yokohama, a voyage he documented in the privately printed travelogue Notes of a Trip Around the World in 1894 and 1895 (1896). The book chronicles the rapid changes transforming Meiji-era Japan, such as the expansion of the tourist trade and export market, which made quality objects rarer and costlier to acquire. Parsons observed Japan’s growing manufacturing capacity, prophesizing, “I cannot see why there is not in the future a menace to our home manufacture in Japanese competition, they work so cheaply, are so painstaking and imitative, that they may yet buy our cotton and wool, and make up clothing and other things for American use, and instead of fearing European competition we may find our machinery duplicated there to produce all sorts of articles much cheaper than they can be made in Europe.”
Steering away from low-quality factory work, Parsons prioritized visits to the “gifted and ingenious artisans” of Japan including the porcelain painter Yabu Meizan (1853–1934), who was known for his colorful Satsuma ware. Parsons idealized Meizan’s small studio practice, writing reverently of his Osaka workshop, where seventeen men and boys were employed in decorating pottery, “All is order, neatness, and silence, no words spoken.” From Meizan Parsons purchased an extraordinary bowl painted on the outside with landscapes of the changing seasons and on the inside with spiraling clouds of thousands of tiny butterflies. Such naturalistic ornament reinforced the idea of Japan as a more spiritual civilization in communion with nature and untainted by industrialization. Natural subjects including insects, birds, sea creatures, flowering trees, cracked ice, and thrashing rain abound in Japanese art collected in the US, especially wares intended for export.
Meizan was determined to take advantage of the foreign market for his ceramics. He sold directly to foreigners like Parsons, studied Western tastes, traveled frequently to the West, and exhibited at major exhibitions, including the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St. Louis in 1904. Meizan’s international business thrived from the mid-1880s until the First World War, a period when Satsuma pottery was among the most popular export goods from Japan, and its production was increasingly mechanized to meet the demand from overseas. Small, independently operated craft shops like Meizan’s studio survived in the Meiji period, although they felt increasing pressure from the traders and manufacturers establishing large-scale factories.
Unknown (Japanese), Netsukes, n.d. Ivory, 2 1/16 x 2 3/8 x 2 1/16 in. and 2 11/16 x 2 x 1 7/8 in.; Unknown (Japanese), Four-case inrō, n.d. Lacquer, 3 1/4 x 1/2 x 2 1/4 in.; Unknown (Japanese), Writing box, n.d. Gold lacquer, 7 1/4 x 10 3/4 x 8 3/8 in.; Unknown (Japanese, Meji period), Kutani ware plate, 1860s–90s. Porcelain, 2 x 12 1/8 in.; Possibly Fujiwara Takada School (Japanese), Long sword and scabbard, 1864. Metal and lacquered wood, 43 5/8 x 3 1/8 x 3/4 in. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Bequests of Charles Parsons, 1905.
Yabu Meizan (Japanese, 1853–1934), Satsuma ware bowl, 1894. Porcelain, 2 7/8 x 4 7/8 in. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905.