Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection—Part One

Painting Edo provides a window into the supremely rich visual culture of Japan’s early modern Edo period (1615–1868). Part One of this four-part online exhibition welcomes you to this vibrant world.

Painting Edo — An Introduction (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums


By 1800, Edo (present-day Tokyo) was already the largest city in the world, with more than a million inhabitants. It was established in 1603 as the eastern headquarters of the Tokugawa military government (shogunate) following the house’s victory over rival warlords. While the figurehead emperor remained in the historical capital of Kyoto to the west, Edo became the seat from which the shoguns ruled. Known as the Edo period (1615–1868), Japan’s early modern era brought an extraordinary wave of urbanization and innovation to the archipelago. This in turn stimulated an immense appetite for intellectual and, especially, pictorial culture, and a dizzying array of painting studios was established to satisfy demand. Although painters did not fit neatly into Edo’s strict class system, which divided the citizenry into warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants, they adopted a version of the warrior elite’s concept of allegiance to a house or “lineage.” Painters of lineages old and new produced a rich variety of visually alluring works, many of which share an interest in convergence: the classical tangles with the contemporary, high meets low, domestic plays against international. Painting Edo is organized to reflect Edo period conceptions of lineage, offering a view of how “Edo” was articulated by and for its own creators and consumers. These compelling images continue to shape our impressions of Japan today. The paintings in this exhibition are drawn exclusively from the remarkable collection of Robert S. Feinberg (Harvard class of 1961) and Betsy G. Feinberg. In an act of exceptional generosity, the Feinbergs have promised their collection of more than three hundred works to the Harvard Art Museums. 

Grasses and Moon (Edo period, 1817) by Tani BunchōHarvard Art Museums

Tani Bunchō (1763–1841)
Grasses and Moon
Edo period, 1817

Few works embody the convergence of venerable cultural practices and novel pictorial approaches in Edo painting more strikingly than this view of a full moon hovering over reeds. Framed as if seen through a window, the image encapsulates the tradition of moon-viewing, an activity long associated with friendship and yearning: no matter the physical distance separating loved ones, all can look up at the night sky and gaze on the same moon. The enormous archaic seal amplifies this connection to the past. Yet Bunchō does not simply repeat an established ink-painting theme. The unusual size of the image and Western-style low horizon generate a feeling of “thereness,” and the inscription confirms that the work commemorates an actual harvest moon gathering in Edo. By interweaving a singular personal episode with that of countless historical predecessors, Bunchō creates a “true view,” an image rooted not in optical reality but in the subjective experience of a site.

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Sakai Hōitsu, Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months (Edo period, c. 1820–28) by Sakai HōitsuHarvard Art Museums

Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828)
Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months
Edo period, c. 1820–28

This cycle is a spectacular example of the convergence of the classical and contemporary in Edo painting. Together, the hanging scrolls create a paradisal garden in which all the seasons flower simultaneously. The theme dates back to the 12th century, when a series of paired birds and flowers were assigned to poetically symbolize each month. These prescribed associations remained prominently embedded in the cultural memory for more than six hundred years. Here, however, Hōitsu has cultivated an alternate set of symbolically charged motifs, creating a vibrant visual idiom for the new era. New motifs include recently imported plants, such as the canna lily from South America, and novel poetic subjects incubated within contemporary short-form haikai (commonly known as haiku) verse. While the paintings are ostensibly secular, research points to their use in Buddhist rituals conducted at the Sakai family mortuary temple in Maebashi, situated about 75 miles northwest of Tokyo.

[Click and drag right to view the full series]

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Introduction: Lineage

This first gallery provides an introduction to the major painting lineages explored in subsequent galleries. 

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums


The Kano house, by virtue of its association with the ruling class, was the premier painting lineage of early modern Japan. The movement of political power from Kyoto to Edo in the early 17th century fostered the growth of new Kano studios in the east of the country. As socially elite “painters-in-attendance” to the shoguns and regional overlords, Kano painters provided monumental paintings in a palette of rich mineral colors on gold. This official repertoire was dominated by historical Chinese themes rather than domestic Japanese imagery. Compositions and painting techniques were passed down from master to pupil within a carefully regulated studio structure using closely guarded copybooks. In this way, Kano painters maintained their supremacy until the mid-18th century, when increasing numbers of unaffiliated painters began to emerge.

Tribute Bearers to the Chinese Emperor (Edo period, late 17th–early 18th century) by Kano SanbokuHarvard Art Museums

Kano Sanboku (active mid- 17th to early 18th century)
Tribute Bearers to the Chinese Emperor
Edo period, late 17th–early 18th century

This recently discovered pair of screens depicts a group of advisors and foreign dignitaries crossing a bridge... bring gifts, including coral and precious minerals, to a Chinese emperor seated inside an imaginary palace. Musicians play on the veranda as the gifts are arranged on a low table before the emperor.

Paintings of tribute bearers became popular among warrior elites in 16th- and 17th-century Japan for their resonance with the hierarchical politics of the day.

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Floating Worlds

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.

Kanbun Beauty (Edo period, mid- to late 17th century) by Unidentified artistHarvard Art Museums

Unidentified artist
Kanbun Beauty
Edo period, mid- to late 17th century

This beauty wears layers of robes decorated in geometric swathes with the “fawn spot” pattern, a laborious miniature tie-dye technique popular during the Kanbun era (1661–73). Her hair is carefully arranged around her delicate face, and a slender foot protrudes erotically from under her skirts. Nothing in the background indicates the woman’s identity or location, yet her posture suggests she is en route somewhere and is unaware of our gaze, inviting a sense of encounter between the viewer and the woman. This sort of implied interaction was critical to the visual economy of floating-world fantasy.

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Literati Painting

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.

Chinese Landscape (Edo period, c. 1815) by Nakabayashi ChikutōHarvard Art Museums

Nakabayashi Chikutō (1776–1853)
Chinese Landscape
Edo period, c. 1815

The profusion of repetitive lines in this large-scale work by the reclusive Kyoto-based painter and theorist Nakabayashi Chikutō creates the illusion that the entire landscape is softly swaying.

Although there are few signs of human activity, the scene is not entirely uninhabited: a contemplative figure is visible in one of the structures on the lakeshore in the left panel, and a man wearing a long-sleeved robe and holding a staff appears on the bridge at the bottom of the right panel. The latter is depicted walking, yet he is rendered with such economy that it almost appears as if he is the only element of the picture that is still. The elegant visual dissonance between the scholar and his surroundings marks this figure as a possible proxy guide to the uncanny, dreamlike landscape.

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

School of Kōrin

“Rinpa” is the word most often used today to describe a mode of painting distinctive for its engagement with classical Japanese painting and literature, the generous use of precious mineral pigments and metals, and graphic qualities that made it highly adaptable to ceramics, lacquer, and textiles. In the Edo period, however, it was known as Kōrin-ha, or School of Kōrin, for its supposed progenitor, Kyoto-born Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716). Yet School of Kōrin painters were not part of an official Kano-style academy. Instead, most affiliated themselves by respectfully copying historical masters whom they had never met. Embedded within their visually striking works is an enriching art historical self-consciousness expressed through the creative repetition of hallmark motifs and techniques.

Cranes (Edo period, c. 1820–25) by Suzuki KiitsuHarvard Art Museums

Suzuki Kiitsu (1796–1858)
Edo period, c. 1820–25

The sublime simplicity of the supple necks and luxuriant feathers of this group of cranes is complemented by the tangle of angular legs at ground level. A patch of water bridges the gap between the two screens, compelling unification in the mind’s eye. As the birds call to and gaze at each other in the shallow pictorial space, their body language echoes the distinctive coiled ripples inked on the azurite water. Although iconic in its own right, Kiitsu’s painting also self-consciously extends an emblem of the School of Kōrin by creatively reprising a crane painting by his master, Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828). Hōitsu’s painting was itself a reworking of a magnificent pair of crane screens by Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716).

Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (2020)Harvard Art Museums

Expansion of Pictorial Culture

Alongside the agricultural innovation and urbanization of the Edo period came economic growth. By the late 18th century, ownership and appreciation of paintings had spread to almost all classes of Tokugawa society, from aristocrats and samurai to merchants. This expansion of the consumer base led to intense competition among painting studios, from which the Kyoto painter Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795) emerged preeminent. Ōkyo infused familiar painting subjects with new life through his gauzy, realistic style, informed by study of the natural world and by both Chinese and Western pictorialism. His many students went on to establish successful ateliers in the Shijō (Fourth Avenue) area of Kyoto, resulting in the umbrella term “Maruyama-Shijō” for this visually appealing mode of painting.

Fish and Turtles (Edo period, c. 1772–81) by Maruyama ŌkyoHarvard Art Museums

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795)
Fish and Turtles
Edo period, c. 1772–81

This screen playfully explores optical reality. The fish and turtles moving through the limpid water lapping at the sand bar are rendered with such scientific accuracy that they can be identified as male and female carp, killifish, and minnows. The fish and turtles are painted on one layer of translucent silk and the water on another, mounted behind the first, so that the creatures appear to swim in the moiré of the silk itself. Despite its novelty, however, this illusory aquatic world still operates within the traditional East Asian framework of auspicious painting, in which the combination of fish, turtles, and pines like those growing at the water’s edge symbolizes wishes for success and longevity.

[Click and drag up to see both sides of this folding screen]

Autumn Maple Trees (Edo period, second half 18th century) by Tawaraya SōriHarvard Art Museums

Continue your visit

Part Two of this four-part online exhibition visits the “Floating Worlds” of Edo’s licensed pleasure quarters, and explores the graphically rich paintings of the School of Kōrin. Follow the link on the next slide.

Credits: Story

Curated by Rachel Saunders, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Associate Curator of Asian Art; and Yukio Lippit, Jeffrey T. Chambers and Andrea Okamura Professor of History of Art and Architecture

This project was made possible by the Robert H. Ellsworth Bequest to the Harvard Art Museums, the Melvin R. Seiden and Janine Luke Fund for Publications and Exhibitions, the Catalogues and Exhibitions Fund for Pre-Twentieth-Century Art of the Fogg Museum, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the Thierry Porté Director’s Discretionary Fund for Japanese Art, and the Japan Foundation. The accompanying print catalogues were supported by the Harvard Art Museums Mellon Publication Funds, including the Henry P. McIlhenny Fund. Related programming is supported by the M. Victor Leventritt Lecture Series Endowment Fund, Harvard University’s Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, and the Department of History of Art and Architecture Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund for Art and Architecture.

Visit Part Two of this four-part online exhibition.

Explore more on the museums’ website.


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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