Portable Tobacco Set
Japanese customs before modern times favored the use of small, self-contained ensembles of objects that could be carried to a pleasant location indoors or outdoors. This tobacco stand represents a type of portable ensemble that became popular during the Edo period (1615–1868), after tobacco was introduced by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century. Tobacco sets ranged from wooden trays that carried a small ceramic brazier, tobacco, and a pipe, to elaborate examples such as this set, which is fitted with a silver brazier, tobacco container, and a silver pipe. The materials, workmanship, and decoration reflected the status of the owner.
The workmanship of both the lacquer decoration and the metalwork of this ensemble is exceptionally refined, and reflects the taste of an elite patron with literary interests. The landscape scene wrapped around the cabinet is the poetic subject of Ide Tamagawa (Jewel River). The riverbank is covered with yamabuki flowers in full bloom. The gold powders that form bands of mist are applied with exquisitely controlled technique, as are the areas of applied gold leaf, with each minute piece laid precisely into place like a tiny mosaic. The silver brazier and tobacco container are decorated with gilded dragons surrounded by engraved clouds. The tobacco pipe has a design of a branch of blossoming plum. Tobacco pipes, especially those made of silver, were prized possessions that could be decorated suit to the taste of the owner.
This tobacco stand, the first in the Freer Gallery of Art, illustrates an important pastime of the Edo period. It is a superb example that demonstrates the outstanding skills of cabinet builders, maki-e masters, and metalwork specialists.