Gallery view of the special exhibition Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection.
Painting Edo — the largest exhibition ever presented at the Harvard Art Museums — offers a window onto the supremely rich visual culture of Japan’s early modern era. Selected from the unparalleled collection of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, the more than 120 works in the exhibition connect visitors with a seminal moment in the history of Japan, as the country settled into an era of peace under the warrior government of the shoguns and opened its doors to greater engagement with the outside world. The dizzying array of artistic lineages and studios active during the Edo period (1615–1868) fueled an immense expansion of Japanese pictorial culture that reverberated not only at home, but subsequently in the history of painting in the West. In an act of extraordinary generosity, the Feinbergs have promised their collection of more than three hundred works to the Harvard Art Museums.
Virtually all aspects of life in Edo Japan, from place of residence and occupation to clothing and hairstyles, were tightly regulated by the warrior class, who ranked above farmers, artisans, and merchants within a strict status system. However, in the theater districts and licensed pleasure quarters of the Yoshiwara (in Edo) and Shimabara (in Kyoto), class restrictions could be temporarily loosened while urban pleasure-seekers indulged in expensive entertainment offered by cultivated courtesans or watched the latest stars of the Kabuki stage. Dubbed “floating worlds” (ukiyo)—a play on a Buddhist term that describes the fleeting, illusory nature of human life—these cities-within-cities and their inhabitants became the focus of a new type of contemporary genre painting (ukiyo-e). Patrons with the means to acquire a souvenir of an actual visit, as well as those who hoped to experience it for themselves one day, purchased vibrant images of the most fashionably dressed courtesans and celebrated actors of the day as buoyant touchstones for their fantasies.