Satsuma: how the West was won over

NEW YORK – Satsuma earthenware dates to the 1590s, when master Korean potters established kilns in Kyushu, in southern Japan. Initially, they crafted small, simple water jars, incense boxes, and tea ceremony components from dark clay. After the discovery of local cream-colored clay, however, these pieces featured floral or geometric designs with soft yellow glazing.

Globular, gilded, enameled Satsuma jar featuring a continuous scene of carriage in a garden against a foliate base, Meiji Period, signed, early 20th century. Sold for $13,000 in 2005. Image courtesy of Doyle New York and LiveAuctioneers

From the late 1700s, these potters, influenced by the rising popularity of Imari porcelain, produced overglaze vessels featuring delicate, hand-painted, multicolor enamel brocade and floral patterns embellished with liquid gold. Final firings, resulting in differing cooling rates between their bodies and glazes, created their characteristic mellow yellow, minutely crackled glaze. The most decorative teasets, vases, trays, brush pots, and incense burners were likely reserved for daimyōs and other high-ranking dignitaries.

Squat vase with elongated neck decorated in polychrome enamels and gilt on a clear crackle glaze depicting daimyo procession, signed with gilt seal, Yabu Meizan, 5.25 inches tall, realized $7,000 in 2014. Image courtesy of A.B. Levy’s Palm Beach and Liveauctioneers

After centuries of self-imposed isolation, the “Enlightened” Meiji emperor not only embraced modernization, but also promoted exports by showcasing Japanese arts at European international exhibitions. After introducing exquisitely detailed Satsuma bowls and massive vases at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, their wares were displayed worldwide, from Vienna and Hamburg to St. Petersburg and Chicago. Their exotic charm and beauty created a sensation.

As the Satsuma craze spread, Japanese artists worked feverishly to create pieces expressly for export. To encourage sales further, they followed their perception of Western tastes. So instead of realistic scenes, their gilded tea caddies, plates, bowls and incense burners bear stylized pagodas, courtesans, demons and dragons against dense bird-and-flower grounds.

Pairs of towering vases were especially popular. Scores depict continuous, go-round images like daimyō processions or crowds entering kabuki theaters. Others, divided into decorative panels, feature contrasting scenarios. Samurai archers oppose bucolic scenes of nature, for instance, and children at play face plump, perching partridges. However, because these earthenware vases were fired at lower temperatures than porcelain, they—and indeed all Satsuma, are purely decorative.

A Satsuma plate featuring festively clad courtesans and children, Kinkozan, realized $3,000 in 2011. Image courtesy of Artingstall Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Satsuma-style workshops, employing numerous potters and painters under the auspices of kiln masters, soon spread from Kyushu to Osaka, Kyoto, Yokohama and Tokyo. Their varied clays, pigments, glazes and methods resulted in a wide range of colors and crackles. Moreover, many craftsmen hastily painted designs on blank, glazed stoneware. Yet to Westerners, all “Satsuma,” whatever their origins, evoked the romance and splendor of the East.

Unfortunately, as production increased, previously consistent standards of quality gave way to shoddy workmanship, overly ornate designs, and lack of artistic creativity. By the mid-1880s, sales of such mass-produced Satsuma had diminished.

All the while, select kiln masters continued creating traditional Satsuma – hand-painted masterpieces featuring restrained, well balanced designs and time-honored themes edged by rich, repetitive borders.

Satsuma gold and polychrome decorated incense burner (koro), Kinkozan, 7 inches x 6.5 inches, realized $1,000 in 2017. Image courtesy of The Popular Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Many examples, reflecting the national love of nature, depict harmonious landscapes embellished with beloved crane, butterfly, cherry blossom, peony, or chrysanthemum motifs. Others, depicting festivals and processions, feature geishas with parasols, scholars studying scrolls, children flying kites, or musicians performing. Though these were portrayed with minute brushstrokes— perhaps even slender rats’ hairs, their facial expressions, amazingly, reflect the full range of human emotions. In fact, say historians, some resemble notables of the time.

A number of master painters, likely courting fame or fortune, signed their creations. Others cleverly worked their names, or the names of their studios, into elements of their artwork. In this way, Hozan, Seikozan, Kikozan and Ryozan, for example, became known for their characteristic techniques, subject manner, styles, and harmony between form and design.

Finely decorated Satsuma bowl, interior with butterflies, exterior with wisteria vines above chrysanthemums and other flowers, base with gilt two-character mark within a brown cartouche on a chrysanthemum ground, 4 inches x 4.5 inches, realized $3,200 in 2009. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Serious Satsuma collectors often seek work by Yabu Meizan, whose masterpieces earned extensive recognition at international ceramic exhibitions and world fairs. Many feature exquisitely detailed images of everyday activities like potters, swordsmiths, fan makers and paper makers at work. Scores depict natural motifs, like maple branches or dragonflies darting among morning glories, against simple, creamy grounds.

Other enthusiasts pursue small, rare works by Nakamura Baikei. These embody not only a skillful use of color, but also expressive brushwork and motifs ranging from amusing to martial. They also feature expansive inscriptions extolling his own incomparable artistic skills.

Rare Satsuma, reflecting superior artwork and detail, pleasing proportions, and unusual subject matter as executed by master craftsmen, are the most desirable of all. In addition to their characteristic fine-crackled glaze, these splendors often incorporate delicate dots and strands of liquid gold applied with the tiniest tips of tiniest brushes. Amid the tasteful elegance, they shimmer.