The first Japanese porcelain was created in the 1610s in the kilns of Arita, Saga. Arita kilns remained the largest producers of porcelain throughout the rest of the Edo period, and their works were considered to be of the highest quality. In the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century, Japan even exported many to Europe via the port of the neighboring town, Imari; Arita porcelains thus became known as “Imari ware” overseas. Imari and Arita fell under the jurisdiction of the Nabeshima clan, who governed the Saga domain. The Nabeshima clan had established an official kiln of their own to produce porcelain specifically to be presented to the shogunate and other powerful lords. Its products are referred to as “Nabeshima ware.” This kiln was located in Ōkawachi, Imari, and operated from the late seventeenth century until the late nineteenth century, around the early years of the Meiji period.
Nabeshima ware comprises a variety of porcelains, from blue-and-white porcelains, to ones decorated in overglaze enamels, as well as celadon, although the first two types are considered most representative. In terms of vessel forms, the kiln’s most well-known products were dishes with slightly raised bases, or the mokuhaigata form, named for their resemblance to sake-drinking vessels known as mokuhai. These dishes normally came in diameters of 1 shaku (about 30 cm or 11.9 inches), 7 sun (about 21 cm or 8.4 inches), 5 sun (about 15 cm or 6.0 inches), and 3 sun (about 9 cm or 3.6 inches), with the last two types sometimes coming as parts of a set.
The most prized of Nabeshima ware are the iro-nabeshima, or works decorated in overglaze enamels, such as this object. At 1 shaku across, it also belongs to the largest class of mokuhaigata dishes. Iro-nabeshima usually involves first outlining a design using the same techniques as in underglaze blue works, then adding other colors in using overglaze enamels. This work, however, uses underglaze blue to depict arbor frames around which wisteria vines twine, allowing the frames to become a central image unifying the overall design. Stylized clouds known as genjigumo (lit., “Genji clouds”) float in the background, rendered evenly and also in underglaze blue, creating an atmosphere of serenity. The wisteria flowers swaying in the foreground are depicted with only red overglaze enamels to outline them, with the plain white ground of the dish forming the whites of their petals. The same thin red lines are used to render the gently twining vines of the wisteria.
The composition of this dish reveals the ceramist’s profound understanding of how to work with a round canvas that curves forward significantly near the edge, and how to create a design achievable only on such a canvas. The sophisticated techniques involved in creating this dish is unseen in other Japanese ceramic works, and make it one of the most representative works of iro-nabeshima.