Paintings from the Edo Period

Kyoto National Museum

(1615-1868)

The Edo period (1615-1868), when the country was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, was largely without war. The urban economy developed, and learning, art, and literature flourished as a result, leading to the refinement of public aesthetic tastes across social strata. In the world of painting, highly original artists emerged whose works were informed by tradition yet were full of innovation and whimsy. Edo-period paintings in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum represent the pinnacle of Japanese art.

Okuni Kabuki
17th Century

In a show thought to constitute the origin of today’s kabuki theatre, a shrine maiden from Izumo Shrine, named Okuni, is said to have borrowed the noh stage at Kyoto’s Kitano Shrine to present a dance called kabuki odori in 1603 (Keichō 8) as part of the shrine’s fundraising performance. This famous screen is the oldest painting to illustrate the scene.

Okuni and her troupe are shown on the noh stage at Kitano Shrine, performing their best known piece called Chaya Asobi (‘Amusement at the Teahouse’). Okuni herself dons male attire as an outlandish, eccentric character (kabukimono) with a sword over her shoulder, whilst in front of her sits a comic (kyōgen) actor dressed as a woman in the role of the teahouse matron, seated delicately on the floor with a fan over his face. Behind Okuni is a clown (saruwaka) with a towel on his head and a folding stool over his shoulder. The song is accompanied by flute and the three drums used in noh, rather than by the shamisen, portraying an early form of the performance.

Below the stage we see all kinds of people—young and old, male and female—absorbed in the show. A group of high-ranking individuals, one holding a golden fan, are portrayed in a box marked with the paulownia crest; some believe this may represent Toyotomi Hideyoshi and members of his retinue. The portrayal of the figures is superb, and the form of the pine needle clusters and rendering of the lower branches resemble those found on wall and screen paintings in the Kyoto temple Myōrenji, providing a strong indication that this may be the work of the Hasegawa school, responsible for the Myōren-ji paintings. The accuracy of the depiction also suggests that this screen painting was made very shortly after Okuni’s actual performance.

Scenes from The Tale of Genji
by Tosa Mitsuyoshi and Chōjirō
17th Century


Albums containing delicate, exquisitely executed paintings of scenes from The Tale of Genji ( J. Genji monogatari) were produced in great numbers from the end of the Muromachi period through the beginning of the Edo period. This extraordinary work with intricate, jewel-toned brushwork is one of the most important of its genre. It is considered an authentic work in the hand of the master painter Tosa Mitsuyoshi, successor to the Tosa school lineage.

The paintings follow the order of the novel’s narrative from chapter one through fort-eight; after that follow six scenes that retell the first six chapters. The last six chapters are not depicted in this album. Recent conservation of this work has revealed artist seals in black ink stamped on the backs of some of the images: a signature reading “Kyūyoku” appears on the backs of the first thirty-five paintings, while a seal reading “Chōjirō” was found on the reverse of the final six images.

The thirteen intermediary scenes are not stamped, but their painting style is in keeping with that of the final six scenes. These factors suggest that the first thirty-five images were done by Tosa Mitsuyoshi, who used the Buddhist name Kyūyoku after becoming a monk. The paintings in the latter part of the album were likely done by an artist named Chōjirō, thought to have been a leading student of Mitsuyoshi.

The backs of the text pages of the album are inscribed with the names of their calligraphers. These include Emperor Goyōzei (1572–1617) as well as other members of the imperial family, high-ranking court officials, and renowned calligraphers of the day. From the official titles used by these figures at the time of their signing, we can date the texts between the years 1614 and 1619. The only contributors to sign their names directly on the fronts of the poem cards were Tarōkimi, daughter of the eminent calligrapher Konoe Nobutada (1565–1614), and his adopted son and successor, Konoe Nobuhiro (1599–1649). For this reason, many scholars believe that a close affiliate to Konoe Nobutada commissioned this album.

Anthology with Cranes
by Tawaraya Sōtatsu / Inscription by Hon’ami Kōetsu
17th Century


Tawaraya Sōtatsu (n.d.) painted the gold and silver design, over which Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) has brushed waka (Japanese poetry) verses by the celebrated poet Kakinomoto Hitomaro and others from the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets collection.

The beginning of the scroll shows a group of cranes flocked on the ground. Eventually they fly off and out of the pictorial space, only to successively descend back into the painting. They then glide over the sea before suddenly veering up above the clouds, fluttering down to the sea again, and finally coming to rest with their feet in the water. The artist creates a breathtaking sense of dynamism in the cranes’ flight as they soar away and then descend again. As many viewers have pointed out, the sequence of the cranes’ movements has exactly the same impact as an animation strip.

Sōtatsu used gold pigment for the birds’ beaks, legs, and parts of their wings, with all other areas painted in silver. His elegant rendering of forms with minimal brushstrokes is truly stunning. At the beginning of the scroll, the land is painted in long sweeping areas of gold, but later varying intensities of gold pigment are used to express the clouds and haze above. The artist skilfully uses gold, along with silver for the ocean waves, to create a marvelous sense of change in the elevation of the cranes in flight.

Major differences in height are depicted. This sophisticated composition manages to defy the upper and lower limitations of the handscroll format and superbly exploits the long, horizontal pictorial surface.
In modern parlance, this is a superb collaboration between the painter, Sōtatsu, and calligrapher, Kōetsu.

Waterfowls in Lotus Pond
by Tawaraya Sōtatsu
17th Century


Two grebes swim in a pond where lotus flowers blossom. It is a very simple scene, but the artist has infused it with life and interest. He uses subtle differences of tone to differentiate the upper and lower surfaces of the lotus leaves on each stem and create bowl shapes; the lotus on the right extends upwards, the one on the left folds down. One flower is in full bloom, whilst he other has already begun to lose its petals. As if echoing this contrast, one of the grebes swims forward creating small waves, whereas the other is static, resting its feet. The passing of time, the opposition of movement and stillness, dry and wet, are masterfully expressed.

There are several examples of the Water Fowl in Lotus Pond theme in Chinese Song- and Yuandynasty paintings; Sōtatsu appears to have based this piece on such works; his uniquely subdued ink tones, glistening ink color, and soft delicate brushwork have utterly changed the nature of the painting and reinvigorated the motif.

Although only Sōtatsu’s seal ‘Inen’ appears in the lower left corner of the picture with no signature, the high quality of the piece leaves no doubt that this is the work of Sōtatsu. The liberal use of tarashikomi (an ink-painting technique in which ink of different concentration is added before the lower layer has dried, creating pooled areas with blurred edges) indicates that it dates from relatively early in his career. Notwithstanding, it is a tour de force demonstrating Sōtatsu’s consummate achievement in ink painting.

Taigong Wang
by Ogata Kōrin
18th Century


The Chinese sage Lu Shang, also known as Taigong Wang, avoided the world by dangling a fishing line in the Isui River; however, King Wen (1152–1056 B.C.E.), who consolidated the Zhou dynasty, made use of his talents. The composition of this painting was taken from a Chinese publication, Xianfo qichong (Daoist Immortals and Buddhist Figures, the Strange and Venerated), but transformed into a much larger work.

All of the lines in the work are clearly meant to converge on the figure of Taigong Wang, which then create a remarkably uniform work. At the same time, the face of the sage has a cheerful or bright expression, while the gold-leaf background spreads to create a warm and serene atmosphere. The painting is not easy to forget.

Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) was the central figure in the world of painting in Kyoto during the Genroku, Hōei, and Shōtoku eras (1688–1716). He was born to the Kariganeya family of drygoods merchants and first studied Kano-style painting. He then came to admire the decorative works of Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) and Tawaraya Sōtatsu (n.d.), and his works acquired a much more brilliant quality. He also contributed designs known as Kōrin-style or Kōrin-design for lacquer ware, textiles, and other decorative arts.

His younger brother, Kenzan, and Sakai Hōitsu inherited his style, which then gave birth to the Rinpa lineage of painting. From the painting style, the signature of Hokkyō Kōrin, and the seal “Kansei”, scholars believe that Kōrin painted this screen before he left Kyoto for Edo in 1704 (Genroku 17), at age forty-seven.
The museum also owns the records pertaining to Kōrin from the former Konishi family collection (Konishi-ke kyūzō Kōrin kankei shiryō), a primary source for research on Kōrin, and Tiger and Bamboo, one of Kōrin’s individualistic ink paintings.

The Gion Festival
17th Century


The Gion Festival marking the onset of summer in Kyoto boasts a long tradition originating in the Heian period with a ritual (goryō-e) aimed at exorcising malevolent spirits causing epidemics. The highlights of the festival are the transfer of sacred palanquins from the Yasaka (Gion) Shrine and the procession of the festival floats. The screen on the viewer’s right represents the procession of the festival floats (yamaboko), which was held on the seventh day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar; this section of the festival is known as saki matsuri, or the “first-festival”.

The screen on the left represents ato matsuri, or the “later festival”, which was held on the fourteenth day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar. In the right screen, the procession begins with the halberd (naginata) float, followed by the Ashikariyama, Uradeyama floats, and more to end with Iwatoyama and Funehoko floats, for a total of twenty-three sacred floats. The procession depicted in the screen to the left comprises ten yamahoko and begins with the Hashi Benkei float, immediately followed by the Hachiman float, the Kuronushi float, and then ends with Gaisen float.

The screens are in a remarkably good state of preservation, and the balance of color with the gold background is truly beautiful. The artist spared no effort in portraying the ambience of festival; the faces and robes of the people populating the screens are all distinct. The superiority of the realization, the quality of the painting, and the gold foil all indicate this was commissioned by one of standing. The identification tags scattered throughout the screens, as well as the subject represented suggest a member of the military class, one convincing hypothesis being that it may have been Itakura Shigemune (1586–1657), the Edo bakufu’s representative in Kyoto.

In the middle of the second panel of the screen to the left, a group sits on a red carpet in front of a gate marked by a note identifying them as the “Seikan-ji official shogunal magistrates to the imperial court”. Scholars believe this is Muneshige and his retinue.
The identity of the painter remains unclear and is the subject of future research. Nevertheless, some scholars have suggested it may have been Kaihō Yūsetsu (1598–1677), a Kyoto painter affiliated with a studio.

Horie monogatari emaki (Illustrated Tale of Horie)
by Iwasa Marabei
17th Century


This elaborately colored handscroll, with almost overbearing ornamentation, is one of a set of scrolls known as the “Matabei-type handscrolls.” Its artist Iwasa Matabei was born the son of Araki Murashige, a military general during the Sengoku (Warring States) period. A year after his birth, nearly his entire family was slaughtered at the hands of the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582); however, the infant Matabei was rescued and taken to Kyoto to be raised as a painter.

At around the age of forty, Matabei moved to Echizen province (present-day Fukui prefecture) to serve under the provincial lords Matsudaira Tadamasa and Tadaaki. It was during this period that he is thought to have produced the Matabeitype handscrolls.
The sometimes gruesome scenes depicted in the paintings in this work resonate with the artist’s own personal history. These scrolls depict the Tale of Horie ( J. Horie monogatari), a prose narrative (otogi zōshi) dating back to the Muromachi period. It relates the story of a young man, named Tsukiwaka, seeking revenge on those who had killed his parents when he was a child. The best-known version of this tale, a twelve-scroll set in the MOA Museum, is actually an abbreviated version of the story.

The Kyoto National Museum scroll comes from an earlier twenty-scroll set, of which six scrolls are known to have survived: three in the Kōsetsu Museum, one in a private collection in Mie prefecture, one in Chōkoku-ji Temple in Nagano prefecture, and this volume in the Kyoto National Museum.
The KNM scroll, which directly precedes the final scroll of the series (owned by Chōkokuji), depicts the climax of the entire narrative, in which the main character finally avenges the death of his parents.

The Pleasures of Fishing, After Wang Wei
Ike no Taiga

When suddenly moving from a darkened space into the sun, there is a moment when the outside world appears white. It would seem that what is portrayed in this work is nature, bathed in a strong light, and thus seen through this same halation effect. In gazing at this painting, which has made use of a dry brush technique and a light touch, the retina finally recognises a concrete image. The soft gentle lines that create the crags and the different pointillism techniques that are used to illustrate the tree leaves create a surge that develops as it moves up the painting. There is no uncertainty in the viewer’s understanding of the object.

The tree leaves and the waves that reflect the bright sunlight have been delicately executed. It is impossible to ignore the expression of the thick tree trunks that have been painted with the brush at an oblique angle to break the monotony. The rhythm of the shading gives birth to movement, dimension, and color, making it hard to believe that only one tint of ink has been used. The figures of the fisherman as they exchange cups of sake and the faces of the children oblivious to all as they play in the water are richly expressive.

The inscription, “In the style of Wang Wei”, at the top right of the scroll does not refer to the painting techniques, but rather to Ike no Taiga’s deep affection for a verse entitled The Voiceless Poem by the Tang-dynasty poet and portrait painter Wang Wei (699–759), a figure he admired his entire life. Taiga, who perfected Japanese Nanga painting, was in his forties when he executed this work, unforgettable with its sensitivity to light.
The KNM scroll, which directly precedes the final scroll of the series (owned by Chōkokuji), depicts the climax of the entire narrative, in which the main character finally avenges the death of his parents.

Heron and Spring Willows; Magpies in Autumn
by Goshun
18th Century


The first screen portrays a flock of magpies resting in dried trees in late autumn, while the second shows a heron taking flight from luxuriant willows on the banks of a river in late spring. The two screens are a study in contrasts: the first, a study of the chilly dry winds of autumn as they blow, while the second is of the mists as they rise in the humid warmth of a spring day. Scholars believe that these screens were painted soon after the artist moved from Kyoto to Ikeda, when he assumed the name Goshun.

In executing the relaxed and free yet strikingly extended lines of the rocks and the pointillism technique for the willow leaves that has been combined with Buson’s use of shade, Goshun’s brush scampers over the silk with a lively rhythm resembling the tips of branches, and the birds overflow with vitality. The screens are the works of a master and reflect his joy in the act of painting.

Goshun studied under Yosa Buson (1716–1783) and then Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795) before developing his own style. The Kyoto clientele with their desire for refined works enthusiastically received his light and easy, if unconventional, style.

One group, known as the Shijō school, the members of which all lived close to Shijō Avenue, and the Maruyama school transmitted their traditions to present day Japanese painting. Goshun was the founder of the Shijō school, and his role in the history of Japanese painting is unquestionably important.

Vegetable Nirvana
by Itō Jakuchū
18th Century

This depiction of nehan (Skt. nirvān・ a), or the death of the historic Buddha Śākyamuni, is represented by vegetables: the recumbent Śākyamuni as a white radish; the mourning bodhisattvas, sages, animals, and birds as various vegetables and fruits; and the sala trees as corncobs. The painting originally belonged to Seigan-ji Temple in Kyoto but was later presented to the Kyoto National Museum, which owns other works by Jakuchū, such as Sekihō-ji Temple and River Voyage.

This work is often described as a parody of a nehan painting, but it is not so. Its painter, Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800), was a devout Buddhist, such that he put his all his efforts into painting his masterpiece in thirty large hanging scrolls, Dōshoku sai-e (Colorful Realm of Living Beings), to present to Shōkoku-ji Temple. One theory is that Jakuchū made this vegetable nehan painting when his mother died in 1779 as a prayer for her salvation and for the prosperity of the family business. How are we to take this? That Jakuchū was born and bred as the successor to a vegetable store on the busy grocers’ shopping street Nishikikōji in Kyoto cannot be unrelated.

The large scroll overflows with lively and humorous expression rendered in thick gray ink washes and lines with dark ink accents. Not limiting himself to colorful paintings like the Colorful Realm, Jakuchū also broke new ground in sumi-e (ink painting).

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