Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8)
Subjects: Visual Arts, History–Social Science
Time Required: 3–5–Part Lesson
5 to 6 class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff


Curriculum Home
Lesson Plans
Image Bank
Background on Asian Influences on European Art

Lesson Overview

Students will learn how French artists used imported lacquer panels in their furniture. They will then explore Asian lacquer panels and create their own Asian-inspired lacquer panel design. Students will then trade their designs and incorporate their classmates' designs into a new furniture design.

Learning Objectives

Students should be able to:
• learn how an art object made by one culture can be used as an element in furniture made by another culture.
• explore the subjects used by Chinese and Japanese artists in creating lacquer boxes and chests.
• create their own lacquer panel designs inspired by subjects and motifs used by the Chinese and Japanese.
• create their own furniture design based on a lacquer panel designed by a fellow classmate.


• Drawing paper, cut into 6-by-6-inch squares
• Colored pencils (including metallic colored pencils)
• Glitter glue pens
• Tempera or acrylic paint
• Gold foil
• Acrylic gloss medium
• Shoeboxes (1 per student)

Lesson Steps

1. Begin by examining this lacquer cabinet using the following questions:
• What do you think is the function of this object? Look closely at the details. How do you think it would be used? (It is a secrétaire, a cabinet that folds down to form a desk. Notice the keyholes in the lower doors.)
• After careful examination of this object, where do you think it was made? What parts of this secrétaire look Chinese and what parts of it look French?
• How has the original lacquer panel been altered to fit this piece of furniture?
• Look closely at the detail on the front of this secrétaire. How would you describe the figures you see there? (The scene depicts European hunters, probably members of the Dutch East India Company, who were among the first Westerners ever seen in China.)
• What reasons can you think of that Chinese artists would be interested in showing European hunters on this lacquer panel? (This particular panel was made by the Chinese specifically to be exported to Europe. Both the Chinese and Japanese made lacquer and porcelains with designs that they thought would appeal to the European market.)
• What reasons can you think of that French artists would want to take a Chinese lacquer panel and incorporate it into the design of a French secrétaire?
• Compare the detail on the sides with the image on the front. In what way are the sides different from the front? (The sides are made of a European imitation lacquer called vernis Martin and show Chinese architectural scenes with no figures.)

2. Once you have discussed the secrétaire, look at images of the cabinet and commode by Joseph Baumhauer. These two pieces of furniture also incorporate lacquer panels, but they are from Japan.

How are the scenes on the front of these two pieces of furniture different from the image on the front of the secrétaire? (These are nature scenes, while the Chinese panel depicts European hunters.)

3. As a class, or as individuals, search the Getty Web site for different cabinets or commodes that incorporate Japanese or Chinese lacquer. (There are 9 different pieces of furniture in the Museum's collection that incorporate Japanese or Chinese lacquer panels.)
What are the similarities and differences between the secrétaire and the other pieces in the collection? (Central to both Chinese and Japanese beliefs is a deep respect for nature. This interest in nature appears in many of the artworks and is rooted in the ancient belief that nature is inhabited by spirits. Simplicity of design is also an important aspect of artworks made by the Japanese and Chinese.)
• What other elements of these pieces of furniture do you notice?
• What are the tops made from? How does that harmonize with the design of the piece of furniture and the lacquer panel?
• What parts of the furniture do you think are real Japanese or Chinese lacquer? How can you tell? (One piece of furniture in the Getty collection, a cartonnier (or file box) by Bernard van Risenburgh, was long thought to be Japanese lacquer. But today it is known that it was made by a French artisan who specialized in making imitation Asian lacquers now known as vernis Martin, after the Martin brothers who invented the technique.)

4. Instruct the students that they will be creating their own lacquer panel design based on the lacquer panels set in European furniture that they have examined as a class. (Students may want to base their panel design on the themes of European hunters as in the panel on the red lacquer secrétaire, or they may want to go with the more traditional scenes of nature as shown on the other cabinets they looked at.)

5. Have the students look at other Chinese or Japanese works of art such as screens, scroll paintings, other lacquer boxes, etc.
• What other subjects do they find?
• Are there a variety of images of nature?
• Are any motifs repeated in the works they find?
• You may want students to research some of the symbolism of animals and plants in Chinese and Japanese art, such as the phoenix, peacock, monkey, bamboo, and pine.

6. Once students have decided on the design they want to create, give them a six-inch-square piece of drawing paper. Have them begin by drawing out their designs in pencil. Once they have completed their designs, have them color them with colored pencils, including metallic colors or glitter glue pens to simulate the use of gold powder in traditional Asian lacquers. To simulate the gloss of lacquer, you could have students use an acrylic gloss medium to coat the drawing.

7. Once students have finished with their design, each will find a partner and trade lacquer panel designs. Students will then be required to create a piece of furniture based on the incorporation of the Chinese or Japanese lacquer panel design made by a fellow student. Using a shoebox as the base of their design, students will create a piece of furniture either in the style of European furniture of the 18th century or in a modern furniture style, but it must incorporate the lacquer panel design created by their partner. Students will use construction paper, metallic paint pens, tempera paint, and gold foil to re-create their shoeboxes into furniture designs.

8. As students begin work on their designs, have them think about the following.
• Will all sides of your piece of furniture show? (Many of the cabinets made in Europe, such as the secrétaire, are only meant to be seen from three sides, while the back of the piece would have been against the wall.)
• How will you integrate the design of the lacquer panel into the overall design of the furniture you create? (The Europeans continued the scenes found on the Asian lacquer panel throughout the entire piece of furniture using vernis Martin, or imitation lacquer.)
• The European designers used bronze mounts to unify the design and to cover up joints in the cabinet. What devices can you use that will also help to unify the design of your piece of furniture?
• Will the lacquer panel design be altered to fit the purpose of the furniture? (As on the secrétaire, many lacquer panels were cut down, or altered to fit the shape and function of the piece of furniture into which they were going to be incorporated.)

9. Once the students' furniture models are complete, have them present them for a class critique. Use the following questions to discuss their works:
• Are there any similarities in the designs?
• What were the challenges of incorporating a design made by someone else into your furniture design?
• How was your original lacquer design altered to fit your partner's furniture design?
• What changes could be made to improve your furniture design?
• What have you learned through the creation of your own piece of furniture about the process of assimilating art styles from other cultures into a new design?

Secrétaire / Dubois
Secrétaire, Jacques Dubois, about 1755


Students will be assessed based on their completion of the project and on their work including the design of their fellow students' art into their new furniture design. They will also be graded on their participation in both class discussions and the final critique.


• Investigate the process of creating true Asian lacquer.
• Where did it originate?
• What are some of the properties that made lacquer so valuable and so functional to the Chinese and Japanese?

(Lacquer sap drawn from the tree Rhus verniciflua was used in East Asia as a protective and decorative coating for objects made of porous materials such as wood. The waterproof, inert film formed by cured lacquer was especially desirable for storage containers for fragile items such as scrolls of calligraphy or painting. As an appropriate honor for a cherished work of art, a costly lacquer box decorated with gold was often ordered to house the object itself, and it was placed in turn in additional wooden boxes as a safeguard against fire or other disasters.)

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–8

Key Ideas and Details
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 6

1.0 Artistic Perception
Processing, Analyzing, and Responding to Sensory Information Through the Language and Skills Unique to the Visual Arts

Analyze Art Elements and Principles of Design
1.3 Use their knowledge of all the elements of art to describe similarities and differences in works of art and in the environment.

2.0 Creative Expression
Creating, Performing, and Participating in the Visual Arts
Students apply artistic processes and skills, using a variety of media to communicate meaning and intent in original works of art.
2.5 Assemble a found object sculpture (as assemblage) or a mixed media two-dimensional composition that reflects unity and harmony and communicates a theme.
2.7 Communicate values, opinions, or personal insights through an original work of art.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
Responding to, Analyzing, and Making Judgments About Works in the Visual Arts
Students analyze, assess, and derive meaning from works of art, including their own, according to the elements of art, the principles of design, and aesthetic qualities.

Derive Meaning
4.1 Identify how selected principles of design are used in a work of art and how they affect personal responses to and evaluation of the work of art.
4.2 Compare the different purposes of a specific culture for creating art.

Make Informed Judgments
4.4 Assess their own works of art, using specific criteria, and describe what changes they would make for improvement.

History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 7

6.6 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the early civilizations of China.

7. Cite the significance of the trans-Eurasian "silk roads" in the period of the Han Dynasty and Roman Empire and their locations.
Understand the importance of both overland trade and maritime expeditions between China and other civilizations in the Mongol Ascendancy and Ming Dynasty.
Trace the historic influence of such discoveries as tea, the manufacture of paper, wood-block printing, the compass, and gunpowder.