The Toledo Museum of Art’s netsuke collection, one of the largest in North America, is newly installed in its entirety in conjunction with the Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints exhibition.
Netsuke were something of a sartorial necessity that grew into their own art form. While traditional Japanese garments like kimono were beautiful, they lacked one important utilitarian element: pockets. Rather than ruin their streamlined design, the Japanese got inventive, hanging inro, small containers for things like money, from their belts. To hang the inro, they used fasteners—netsuke—which began as simply useful objects but evolved into a fantastically varied artistic medium.
The Toledo Museum of Art’s collection of netsuke is due to the generosity of several gifts over the last 100 years, but especially one dedicated donor—Richard Silverman. While living in Tokyo for 15 years, the art collector adapted to the country’s famously tight spaces by turning his focus to the tiny, yet meticulous, netsuke. “The finest were like miniature Michelangelos,” Silverman said.
Netsuke were originally an inexpensive commodity, but with the decline of traditional Japanese clothing, these tiny masterpieces rose in value. Today, signed 18th-century ivory or wood netsuke can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.
The TMA’s netsuke collection dates mostly to Japan’s Edo Period (1615–1868), and is notable for its quality and craftsmanship. The more than 500 works are made of ceramic, ivory, stag antler and various woods.
Top row, left to right
Hoichi , Netsuke: Daruma with rolling eyes, mid 19th century. Wood and ivory with rolling eyes. Gift of Richard R. Silverman, 2013.155
Netsuke: Plum flowers in a basket, mid 19th century. Gold lacquer. Gift of Richard R. Silverman, 2013.62
Gyokuho , Netsuke: Kitchen utensils, mid 19th century. Ivory. Gift of Richard R. Silverman, 2013.111
Netsuke: Nesting bird, mid 19th century. Ivory and wood. Gift of Richard R. Silverman, 2013.145
Bottom row, left to right
Netsuke: Pig and broken fan, mid 19th century. Bowl: stag. Iron plate with silver, shakudo, and gold. Gift of Richard R. Silverman, 2013.71
Netsuke: five turtles standing on each other, mid 19th century. Wood. Gift of Richard R. Silverman, 2013.148
Netsuke: Kaprizen elephant, mid-late 19th century. Ivory with an inly of lacquer, mother-of-pearl, and tagayasan. Gift of Richard R. Silverman, 2013.45
Netsuke: Four seasons manju, early-mid 19th century. Ivory. Gift of Richard R. Silverman, 2013.43