Although trained as a sculptor, Jean Dunand began to explore the potentially more lucrative field of decorative arts, particularly metalworking, early in his career. His success in this area was immediate, and his pieces were regularly included in important exhibitions. He soon developed an interest in lacquer as a decorative finish for metal objects. In 1912 he undertook to learn the closely guarded secrets of traditional Asian lacquerworking from the Japanese master Seizo Sugawara and began to produce lacquered furniture and decorative panels. Combining age-old techniques with contemporary forms and abstract decorative designs, Dunand experimented with new ways of using the material, incorporating it into jewelry, textiles, and even society portraiture. His premises at 70, rue Hallé in Paris contained a showroom and specialized workshops for lacquerworking, metalworking, cabinetmaking, designing, and model making. He employed more than one hundred craftsmen and assistants, including a number of Indo-Chinese lacquerworkers. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Dunand participated in important Paris exhibitions. He supplied large-scale decorative panels for the "Ile de France," "L'Atlantique," and "Normandie" — the great ocean liners that were showcases for the best of French contemporary design. His work was shown widely throughout Europe and the United States and was acquired by major museums, including the Metropolitan.
Dunand's work is impressively exemplified by this magnificent screen, one of a pair (the other is entitled "Pianissimo") executed after the designs of the Russian-born sculptor Séraphin Soudbinine (a favorite student of Rodin) for the music room of the Port Washington, Long Island, residence of Solomon R. Guggenheim in 1925–26. It is likely that Soudbinine conceived the pictorial composition and was responsible for carving the bas-relief figures of the angels and the geometrically abstracted rocks, all of which were affixed to the flat panels of the screen with nails and wood dowels. The completed screen was lacquered by Dunand. The sumptuous gold lacquer, both matte and glossy in finish, was probably applied by a craftsman named Zuber whose sole responsibility in Dunand's studio was the delicate application of gold leaf and powder to freshly lacquered surfaces. The richness of effect is enhanced with tiny shards of mother-of-pearl and eggshell scattered over the surface.
Natural lacquer is the byproduct of the sap of various trees indigenous to Indochina (Vietnam), China, and Japan. The harvested sap must be sealed in airtight containers and allowed to separate into differing layers of density over several months. Multiple coats are generally used for depth and richness of color: the densest lacquer is mixed with plant fibers for use as undercoats; the finest is applied with brushes made from human hair for the surface coats. In order to harden, each layer must be "cured" in an environment with controlled levels of high humidity. The hardened lacquer must be polished smooth before the next layer can be applied. A wide variety of colors (with the exception of white, which cannot be achieved in natural lacquer) can be obtained by adding metal oxides or natural vegetable dyes to liquid lacquer. Traditionally, to introduce white, tiny shards of eggshell are set into a freshly applied wet layer. A large object with up to twenty layers of lacquer could take two years to produce.