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

Painting Edo provides a window into the supremely rich visual culture of Japan’s early modern Edo period (1615–1868). Part Three of this four-part online exhibition invites you to travel through the evocative ink landscapes of Japan’s “scholar-painters,” and to experience the supreme strangeness of Edo’s “eccentrics.”

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

Pictorial Cultivation

The idealized East Asian scholar-recluse, or literatus, was a figure who valued public service, self-cultivation, and the pleasures of friendship above all else. In China, calligraphy and painting were an essential part of the practice of self-cultivation. Literati painters of the 11th century onward developed an expressive painting aesthetic based on visual amateurism, using inexpensive materials to produce pictures ostensibly meant to be shared with friends rather than sold for profit. In the early 18th century, printed painting manuals detailing the brush techniques and subjects central to continental literati painting arrived in Japan, where the style was untethered from the rich socio-literary context within which it had developed over centuries. By departing creatively from the printed guides, artists on the archipelago distinguished Edo literati painting from its continental counterpart in a variety of ways. They developed distinctive new brushstrokes and subjects, adapting elements from the intimate pictorial modes of the Chinese literatus to suit the large-scale format of the Japanese folding screen.

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

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

A Thousand Mountains in Deep Verdure (Edo period, c.1810) by Uragami GyokudōHarvard Art Museums

Uragami Gyokudō (1745–1820)
A Thousand Mountains in Deep Verdure
Edo period, c.1810

Inebriation was celebrated among literati as a means of transcending social and artistic boundaries. Gyokudō is often said to have painted while drunk, although it is unclear whether his intoxication was actual or metaphorical. The drunken persona reflects his commitment to the literati ideals of naturalness and amateurism, reflected in this microcosmic landscape. Although the painting is diminutive, the rounded mountain peaks loom over the front of the picture plane, threatening to engulf both the solitary traveler in the foreground, and the viewer, in a mass of frenzied inkwork.

Precipitous Rocks and Rushing Water (Edo period, 1843) by Uragami ShunkinHarvard Art Museums

Uragami Shunkin (1779–1846)
Precipitous Rocks and Rushing Water
Edo period, 1843

Shunkin was the son of Uragami Gyokudō (1745–1820). Unlike his father, Shunkin was immersed in the practice of ink painting from a young age, and during his lifetime was the better known painter. These extraordinary, almost extraterrestrial scenes of piled rocks and flowing water may have been inspired by the cult of strange rocks among Chinese scholars. Shunkin’s dry brushwork is orthodox compared to his father’s, incorporating texture strokes reminiscent of the famous Chinese ink painter Ni Zan (1301–1374).

[Click and drag right to view both screens]

Bamboo on a Stormy Day (Edo period, after 1759) by Ikeno TaigaHarvard Art Museums

Ikeno Taiga (1723–1776)
Bamboo on a Stormy Day
Edo period, after 1759

The emblematic characteristics of the scholar-gentleman, including resiliency and flexibility, are symbolized here by the bamboo plant that bends but does not break in adverse conditions. Bamboo, the “ink gentleman,” offered endless possibilities for expressive experimentation with ink tonality and brushwork to literati painters. Here, Taiga intentionally raised his brush as he painted to leave kinetic passages of un-inked paper as he formed the arched stalk of the wind-buffeted bamboo stem, set against a pastel blue ground suggestive of the muted hibernal light of a stormy winter day.

Lanting Pavilion (Edo period, 1805) by Ki BaiteiHarvard Art Museums

Ki Baitei (1734–1810)
Lanting Pavilion
Edo period, 1805

In 353 CE the renowned Chinese calligrapher invited a group of forty poets to a poetry gathering at the Lanting (Orchid) Pavilion, where they composed poems while drinking wine from cups floated down a stream. The event was a touchstone subject for literati painters, as it evoked the unfettered lifestyle of the ideal scholar-gentleman.

The pavilion—normally the focal point of paintings on the theme—is here barely visible at top right. The pictorial surface is pointillistically filled to the brim with tiny foliage strokes, but small groups of participants can be found in openings among the writhing earthen forms. The rendering is both playful and eccentric, as if to suggest that the natural setting is the true essence of the subject.

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

Professional Amateurism

Chinese-style literati ink painting—anchored in an amateur aesthetic of personal cultivation rather than commercial gain—was introduced to the Japanese archipelago in the 18th century and enthusiastically domesticated. While early practitioners had to look largely to printed painting manuals for guidance, 19th-century painters benefited from increased access to original paintings and books on painting theory and practice. Works by later artists incorporate legible references to the brushwork and compositions of their well-known Chinese predecessors. Although literati painting had in fact been professionalized early on in China and Korea, in Japan it was adopted from the outset as a painting style rather than a way of life. In the competitive artistic environment of 19th-century Japan, literati painters increasingly adopted and synthesized the popular decorative strategies of professionals working in the Maruyama-Shijō style (see Expansion of Pictorial Culture in Part 4).

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

Arashiyama in Spring and Takao in Autumn (Edo period, 1832) by Yamamoto BaiitsuHarvard Art Museums

Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783–1856)
Arashiyama in Spring and Takao in Autumn
Edo period, 1832

These screens celebrate two famous sites close to the city of Kyoto: Arashiyama, known for its springtime cherry blossoms (right), and Takao, noted for the beauty of its autumn maples (left). Baiitsu was the supreme colorist among literati painters of his era. His lavish use of mineral blues and greens and several different kinds of cut-gold sprinkled to create dreamlike pillows of mist is supplemented with Chinese-style inkwork (to texture Arashiyama) and gold outline (for the rocks of Takao) in a manner highly reminiscent of Ming and Qing landscape paintings popular in Edo Japan. While timeless, each of these sites is also anchored to a specific moment by the tiny vignettes of visitors enjoying the seasonal views.

[Click and drag right to view both screens]

Mount Fuji (Edo period, 1802) by Tani BunchōHarvard Art Museums

Tani Bunchō (1763–1841)
Mount Fuji
Edo period, 1802

Literati painting spread eastward from Kyoto to Edo, where it was shaped by the tastes of the shogunal capital and through the syncretic work of Tani Bunchō. Bunchō studied a wide range of classical Japanese, continental Asian, and Western works; he also adopted nature sketching techniques, selective realism, and an emphasis on ornamentalism from Maruyama-Shijō painting. This monumental painting of the sacred peak of Mount Fuji is a “true view”—an image rooted not in optical reality but in the subjective experience of a site. Bunchō likely based the work on his own encounter with the volcano. He takes pains to convey the specificity of the mountain’s contours and surrounding topography using modeling and subtle spatial recession, while at the same time allowing his inky brushwork to reveal the trace of his hand, a trademark of literati painters.

Peach Blossom Spring (Edo period, 1792) by Watanabe GentaiHarvard Art Museums

Watanabe Gentai (1749–1822)
Peach Blossom Spring
Edo period, 1792

Gentai borrowed from the idioms of professional Chinese painting that were otherwise anathema to the amateur literati tradition. As a result, he developed a style previously unwitnessed in Edo painting.

Peach Blossom Spring derives from a prose preface by Chinese poet Tao Yuanming (365–427), in which a fisherman chances upon a paradisal realm after passing through a cave hidden by blossoming peach trees. He returns home to tell others of his discovery, only to fail to find it again.

Gentai’s rendering follows the ancient tradition of using azurite blue and malachite green to endow the mountains that shelter the utopian village with sacred meaning.

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


Affiliation with a lineage or school was central to the self-identity of the majority of Edo painters. Artists who chose to operate outside these structures could pursue greater creative freedom, developing their own style of brushwork and signature approaches to color or traditional themes, but they also faced greater social and economic challenges. As a result, numerous achievements by apparently unaffiliated painters went unrecognized until the postwar era, when several gifted artists were written into a new “lineage of eccentrics” that brought them into the art historical mainstream and celebrated their status as highly individualistic nonconformists. However, contemporary understanding of eccentricity as a psychological state differs from its meaning during the Edo period, when the concept instead encompassed the strange and the supernatural, the talents of the idealized scholar-recluse, and the elegant disregard of social norms—themes embodied by the paintings in this gallery.

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

Race at Uji River (Edo period, c. 1764) by Soga ShōhakuHarvard Art Museums

Soga Shōhaku (1730–1781)
Race at Uji River
Edo period, c. 1764

Soga Shōhaku is among the select group of painters written into Japanese art history as so-called “eccentric painters” in the mid-20th century for his unorthodox painting style. This rare polychromatic screen was painted at the height of his powers of pictorial grotesquerie. It depicts a famous episode from the 14th-century war epic the Tale of the Heike, in which the warriors Kagesue (left, in red) and Takatsuna (right, in green) compete for the honor of being the first to cross the River Uji after retreating enemy troops have destroyed the bridge.

As they approach the churning water, Takatsuna tricks Kagesue into thinking his saddle is loose. When Kagesue leans down to check, Takatsuna rushes past him to claim the victory. Shōhaku paints Takatsuna with a pale, mask-like face; his sinister air is magnified by the fangs of his horse, Ikezumi (“Mortal Eater”).

The Poet Su Shi and Meng Jia Loses His Hat (Edo period, 18th century) by Ikeno TaigaHarvard Art Museums

Ikeno Taiga (1723–1776)
The Poet Su Shi and Meng Jia Loses His Hat
Edo period, 18th century

These screens depict two renowned figures in acts of elegant disregard for societal norms. At left is the fourth-century scholar-statesman Meng Jia (317–420), who failed to notice when his cap was blown off by a gust of wind at a formal gathering one day. When a colleague criticized his appearance, Meng replied with a beautifully phrased poem composed on the spot. At right is the celebrated poet Su Shi (1036–1101), who, upon getting caught in a sudden rainstorm, borrowed a simple hat and clogs from a nearby farmer and continued on his way. Although Taiga’s brushwork suggests swift execution, the composition of the screens is in fact carefully planned to establish a series of comparisons between the bare-headed statesman and the hatted poet, one turned away beneath a coniferous pine, the other approaching a deciduous tree. Both the archetypal figures and Taiga’s painting style embody Edo period rather than modern concepts of eccentricity, or ki in Japanese.

[Click and drag right to view both screens]

Peacock and Peonies (Edo period, 1768) by Maruyama ŌkyoHarvard Art Museums

Continue your visit

In the fourth and final part of this online exhibition, explore the expansion of pictorial culture to new markets, take a close look at the intricacy of folding fan paintings, and step into the 20th century with compelling works that continue to inform the image of “Japan” in the world today. Follow the link in 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 Four 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.
Google apps