The Meiji Period – Exploring Antiques From This Era

What was the Meiji period?

Emperor Meiji

The Meiji period was an era of Japanese history ranging from 1868 to 1912. During this time, Japan transformed itself from an isolated feudal nation to an industrialised world power.

Japan was in the Edo Period when Emperor Meiji was born in 1852. It was a closed off, pre-industrial country, dominated Samurai class, Tokugawa Shogunate and Daimyos. The Samurai were mostly warriors and were the top of the social class system, they had been the ruling military class for nearly 700 years.

When Emperor Meiji came to power, military rulers gave up their control and the country returned to being ruled by an Emperor. A new representational government formed, which led to a series of changes in the Japanese political system. This included the beginning of engagement with other nations, something very limited prior to this era. After almost 300 years closed to trade, Japan began to trade openly with Europe and the West, and modernisation came to the country.

This brought Western culture, goods and people to Japan and meant Japanese culture travelled overseas. Japanese goods were sold in Western markets for the first time and became highly fashionable. Modern Western practices and traditional Japanese methods interlinked, with demand for Japanese-made objects in the West having a strong influence on Japanese art and antiques. The impact of this engagement with new cultures is evident in much Meiji-period art, which reflected a new era for the nation and its developing relationship with the wider world.

By the time of Emperor Meiji’s death in 1912, Japan had been through widespread political, economic, and social shifts and emerged as a great world power.

How did the Meiji period change Japanese art and antiques?

During the 40-year Meiji period, Japan went through a huge amount of change. Before this, craftsmen mostly produced decorative works for Samurai patrons. The Samurai were warriors, so many pieces took the form of weaponry and armour. Under the new system, craftsmen were granted more freedom. The government encouraged them to make more high quality, fashionable works of art, embracing innovation. There was a rapid expansion of artistic forms, subjects and styles and objects were crafted for display – with new pieces going to the market. The quality of this art greatly appealed to overseas markets and demand rapidly grew. New styles and techniques resulted, artists from previously separate crafts collaborated and production expanded on an extreme scale. There was a huge Western influence on Japanese art as, for the first time in the nation’s history, art was no longer only being made just for Japanese consumers.

The Meiji period’s dramatic cultural changes provided new topics to capture, including foreign customs and styles, global warfare, and the transformation of Japan itself. Chinese art also influenced production, with some Meiji antiques reflecting traditionally Chinese techniques. This included more attention to plant and animal life, with pieces featuring dragons, fish or rabbits.

Japanese culture was also infused with the classical forms of Western art. Artists learnt new Western techniques, whilst Japanese craft, especially metalworking, was copied in the West. Makers created pieces that appealed to Western consumers whilst retaining Japanese tradition and heritage. They developed a marvellous ability to balance tradition with innovation, and  these pieces were unrivalled in quality of craftsmanship and design.

Meiji Japan also wanted to portray itself to the world as equal to the West. Japanese art emerged onto the global stage at various exhibitions across Japan, Europe and the USA. The fine detail in works brought makers high praise, with creations becoming highly sought-after by collectors around the world. There was an insatiable demand for creations and major artists became extremely wealthy individuals.

Example Meiji period antiques

We have a wide range of Meiji period antiques in our warehouse. These include beautiful painted and bronze vases, statues and figures. Browse our collection of Japanese Meiji period antiques online or view them at our Brighton warehouse – we’d be delighted to give you a tour.

Bronze wares

bronze warrior statue

Meiji period craftsmen attempted distinctive and complex bronze wares. Several metal-working schools developed, creating intricate pieces including vases, sculptures and incense burners. They were heavily influenced by Chinese pieces, using nature as inspiration and featuring plants, wildlife and mythical animals like dragons. The best items were intricate pieces with highly realistic detailing.

In our collection, we currently have this rare, fine quality Miyao Bronze Warrior from the Meiji period. The warrior has gilded highlights and is holding a Cloisonné enamel ball clock above its head. The sphere has detail including colourful mythical creatures and a finely carved okimono of a seated man holding a brush. A great addition to any room, this also has an eight day duration clock inset into the ball that chimes on the hour.

Furthermore, this piece is signed Miyao. The Miyao Company of Yokohama, under founder Miyao Eisuke, was a producer of bronze ornamental sculptures. Works often depicted characters from Japanese legend and mythology to appeal to both Japanese and Western markets.

Cloisonné enamel

cloisonné enamel pot

The Meiji period was also known for cloisonné enamel. The technique of cloisonné was introduced to Japan from China and was initially used to decorate small items like jewellery and swords. Japan’s modernisation led to an increase in the number of enamellists and range of enamelled objects. Cloisonné was an ideal medium for intricate, two-dimensional block-colour decoration and artists experimented with complex techniques for achieving this effect.

Currently, we have some Chinese Cloisonné Enamel pieces available if you’d like to see what these Japanese antiques were based on. One is this impressive late 19th Century Chinese Large Cloisonné Lidded Pot. The enamel pot has classical symbols and detail depicting dragons, set up on a carved ebonized stand. With plenty of intricate decoration and a mythical dog on the top, this certainly makes a great centre piece.

Ceramics and porcelain

meiji period satsuma vases

Most of the fine porcelain produced during the late 19th Century Meiji period was created in Satsuma. Japan had a long history of porcelain production, with kakiemon wares common in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In the early 19th Century, kakiemon production declined, and it was overtaken by porcelain made in the Satsuma region – an important area during the Meiji period as it was the first region to rebel against the shogunate and offer support to the new Emperor.

During the expansion of production in the late 19th Century, ceramicists perfected new overglaze techniques for decoration, as well as Satsuma porcelain’s distinctive ivory-coloured ground. Many Satsuma wares were produced for export and decorated with images that were appealing to Westerners, including Japanese-style figures wearing kimonos, pagodas, flowers, and birds.

We currently have these impressive Large Meiji Period Satsuma Vases in our collection. The pair of Japanese Satsuma Flared Neck Vases are highly detailed and decorative. Each have wonderful gilded and hand-painted decoration, depicting outdoor scenes of people on horseback. This, alongside classical floral, leaf and motif decoration, draws the eye and makes them a perfect decorative pair.

Ferdinand Barbedienne

Barbedienne was born in 1810, son to a small farmer from Calvados. Having started his career as wallpaper dealer, Ferdinand set up a studio with Achille Collas in 1839. Collas invented a machine for reproducing smaller scale copies of statues and they launched a busy production, starting with producing replicas of Greek and Roman antique sculptures. Their first contract to make sculptures by a living artist came in 1843 from François Rude, known for his iconic sculpture “La Marseillaise” on the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile in Paris. The Barbedienne Foundry perfected new methods for the colour and patina finishes for their bronzes and worked with many renowned Parisian sculptors such as David D’Angers and Jean-Baptiste Clesinger.

It is worth noting that Ferdinand Barbedienne produced many decorative artefacts including clocks, mirrors and vases. In 1855, he began a fruitful collaboration with the famous designer Louis-Constant Sévin, casting his spectacular Ornamental mirror, now displayed at the Musée D’Orsay. That same year, the foundry was awarded the World’s Fair Medal of Honour. Barbedienne also teamed up with the enameler Alfred Serre, developing a set of “cloisonnés”, enamels that made the headlines at London’s World’s Fair of 1862. Together with Serre, Barbedienne produced the beautifully detailed Renaissance style Monumental Clock, on view at Paris City Hall.

Following Achille’s passing in 1859, Ferdinand became the sole owner of the foundry, which had grown to employ over 300 workers. In recognition of his craftsmanship excellence, Barbedienne was made President of the Reunion of Bronze Makers in 1865, a post he held for 20 years. During the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, he was forced to stop making statues in order to produce cannons. After the war, the foundry returned to casting sculptures, gaining even more significant commissions.

In 1876, Barbedienne acquired 125 casting models from the sale of the late animalier Antoine Louis Barye. He then successfully cast and sold editions of Barye’s animal sculptures, creating an entire catalogue for these pieces. Ferdinand Barbedienne passed away in 1891, mourned by France’s art world and the people who were able to access art thanks to his work.

Gustave Leblanc, Barbedienne’s nephew, took over the running of the foundry, continuing its tradition of excellence and setting up new offices in Germany, Britain and the United States. Leblanc headed the foundry until 1952 and cast models for renowned sculptors Auguste Rodin and Emmanuel Frémiet.

Browse our collection of Barbedienne bronzes online or come and see them at our showroom in Brighton – we’d be delighted to give you a personal tour.

Auguste Moreau – Capturing Life’s Beauty in Bronze

Auguste was trained by his father from a very young age. As most members of the Moreau family, he attended ‘École de Beaux-Arts’ in Paris. Founded in 1797 as ‘École spéciale de peinture, de sculpture et d’architecture“ in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, it was officially acknowledged by the French King Louis XVIII in 1819. The students received excellent art education in small groups of 10 to 20, with esteemed lecturers passing on the knowledge and nurturing their skills. Auguste attended the school at the same time as many renowned French artists, such as the painter Henri Matisse and the sculptor Georges Gimel.

Auguste continued artistic training and developed his own unique style of filigree figures, capturing dreamlike beauty, vitality and the delightful interplay of people, magical creatures, animals and nature.

His first works were exhibited in 1861, and Moreau became a well-known sculptor at the young age of 27. It was an exciting and promising time for artists in Paris, as the city hosted a succession of exhibitions and world fairs that offered the opportunity to display French art to prominent international visitors. The first World’s Fair in France was held in 1855, with ‘Palais des Beaux-Arts’ built specially to showcase contemporary art and its newest trends. Following the fairs of 1867 and 1878, Paris hosted the spectacular World’s Fair of 1889, with Eiffel Tower erected to commemorate its opening.

Auguste Moreau evolved to become a celebrated Art Nouveau sculptor, incorporating its delicate floral motifs and curved lines while bringing detailed naturalism and lifelike quality to his graceful filigree figures and busts. The talented artist died in 1917, leaving an extensive body of bronze sculptures found in museums around the world.

View our collection of Auguste Moreau’s delightful bronzes online or marvel at their detailed beauty in person at our antiques warehouse in Brighton.