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.
In 1868, a coalition of powerful, discontented samurai overthrew the ailing Tokugawa military government and restored the emperor to power. The new Meiji era (1868–1912) was a time of turbulent change. Sweeping political and social reforms were instituted as Japan sought to establish itself as a modern nation on the global stage. Art and industry played critical roles in this project both at home, where the government sought to “civilize and enlighten” the people, and abroad, at the enormously popular World’s Fairs. An arts establishment modeled on European institutions such as the academy, salon-style exhibitions, and a culture of public criticism was implemented to train a new generation in a “national” style of painting known as nihonga. Nevertheless, Meiji era artistic production maintained some notable continuities with that of the Edo period, as artists found new ways to frame the past in the present and the present in the past.