“Horse-eye” dish

At the end of a long day’s walk along the Tōkaidō or one of the other highways that connected Japan during the Edo period (1615–1868), a weary traveler might have eased onto a bench at a roadside rest house and ordered sake and a snack. A maid would have brought out a warmed bottle of local brew and a generous dish like this one, holding home-cooked simmered herring or vegetable stew—comfort food.

This plate is the product of one of the huge wood-fired climbing kilns that were built along the Seto River. The Seto workshops specialized in all varieties of ceramic kitchenware, and their heyday was the first several decades of the nineteenth century. The production’s centerpiece was this type of sturdy dish, with a broad foot, curved wall, and rounded rim. Such dishes are referred to now as ishizara, literally “stone plate.” The term may have commended the form’s durability. An alternative, nishinzara,  perhaps derived from the names of foods commonly served in it—nishin (herring) or nishime (simmered mixed vegetables).

The Seto dishes are descendants of those made at the Kasahara kilns in nearby Mino two centuries earlier. Some Seto ishizara dishes bear two-color designs such as willow trees or bamboo, but the most familiar decoration is this “horse-eye” pattern, brushed in iron pigment only. Spiraling lines uncoil tautly, ending in an oval frame; six or seven ovals circle the dish rim and would have framed the food. “Horse eye” is the most common interpretation of the motif, but thunderclouds (an auspicious sign of rain) or clamshells have also been suggested. In any case, the workshop painters who drew them by the thousands must have moved their hands automatically. This kind of unselfconscious artistry attracted the philosophers and makers of the Japanese Folk Craft Movement in the early twentieth century and made the Seto “horse-eye” dishes an icon of Folk Craft-inspired collections.

Wares from kilns in the Seto and Mino regions form the largest group of Japanese ceramics in the Freer Gallery. These holdings span the seventh through nineteenth century and illuminate the rise of glaze, the Chinese-inspired wares of the medieval period, the brilliant flowering of tea-related wares circa 1600, and the abundance of both elite and popular wares during the Edo period. (Setomono—“Seto things”—signified “ceramics” throughout much of Japan, wherever the wares were marketed.) Although Charles Lang Freer’s collecting predated the rise of the Folk Craft Movement, he acquired a number of Seto and Mino sake flasks and other vessel forms that would be embraced by Folk Craft collectors a short time later. This dish joins and complements those pieces, telling another part of the complex Seto and Mino story—just as the catalogue printed in 1992 is being reconfigured as a full-color digital version on the museums’ website.

“Horse-eye” dish
Japan, Seto, Hora kilns, 1800–1830
Stoneware with iron pigment under clear glaze
H x D: 5 × 28 cm
Gift of Marie Woo
Freer Gallery of Art F2018.3