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.
Literati painting originated in China and Korea in the 11th century, when scholar-officials took up an amateur style to depict mountain landscapes, symbolic plants, and other touchstone images with the modest materials of paper and ink. Deliberately under-crafted and antithetical in every way to the highly finished products of professional painters, works in this mode reveal the hand of the painter and were ostensibly created as gifts rather than for monetary gain. They expressed a shared set of values based on naturalness, lack of pretension, and self-cultivation.
Upon gaining a foothold in Kyoto during the early 18th century, literati painting had an enormous impact on Edo period visual culture. Limited access to original Chinese paintings and the absence of a true equivalent to China’s scholar-official class meant that printed painting manuals had an outsize influence on the domestication of this continental mode of picture-making. Although literati painting had in fact been professionalized in China early on, in Japan the tradition was embraced from the outset more as a pictorial style than as a manifestation of personal cultivation.