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

Painting Edo provides a window into the supremely rich visual culture of Japan’s early modern Edo period (1615–1868). 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.

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

Expansion of Pictorial Culture

By the 18th century, the increased prosperity of Edo’s urban and provincial merchant classes meant that ownership of paintings was no longer limited to the aristocrats and warriors who officially occupied the elite strata of society. These new audiences both demanded and responded to an enormous range of pictorial production, from realistic polychrome birds and flowers to monochrome ink landscapes, from monumental screen paintings to the most intimate of albums. Within this highly competitive environment, Kyoto painter Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795) synthesized traditional subject matter with scientifically accurate observation of nature and played with the conventions of both European and Chinese image-making. The novelty and accessibility of his work contributed to his immense success. His many followers, whose works found their way into numerous collections, are today often collectively referred to as the Maruyama-Shijō school after the vicinity where they worked.

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

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

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

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795)
Peacock and Peonies
Edo period, 1768

This resplendent peacock regards the fan of his iridescent tail feathers, so profuse they obscure the moss-studded rocks and luxuriant peonies behind.

Gold is used to frame the “eyes” of each of the tail feathers, and delicate gold strands are suspended from the feather shafts. Animated by shifting light conditions, these shimmering surfaces not only draw attention to the lavishness of the materials, but also suggest the dignified bird’s graceful movement. Peacocks are not native to Japan but were imported during the Edo period as exotic curiosities. Ōkyo’s portrayal, realized with Western-style anatomical precision combined with conventional elements of polychrome Chinese bird-and-flower painting, testifies to his great achievement: the synthesis of different painting techniques and aesthetic traditions into a unified approach.

The Parrot King (Edo period, c. 1787–95) by Nagasawa RosetsuHarvard Art Museums

Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799)
The Parrot King
Edo period, c. 1787–95

Rosetsu, like his teacher Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), painted an enormous range of subjects for a variety of patrons. These two paintings showcase his ability to meld observation of the natural world and painterly convention with characteristic panache. In The Parrot King, a diverse flock of birds, including bush warblers, java sparrows, and mynahs, chatters on the lower branches while a single scarlet parakeet perches disinterestedly above. The composition adapts a Chinese painting theme known as “one hundred birds,” paying witty homage to the phoenix that typically appears by substituting the mythical bird with a highly realistic depiction of a parakeet. In the 18th century, parakeets were imported to Japan from Southeast Asia as exotic curiosities, and both Rosetsu and Ōkyo painted them from life.

Sparrows Alighting on Wisteria (Edo period, c. 1787–99) by Nagasawa RosetsuHarvard Art Museums

Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799)
Sparrows Alighting on Wisteria
Edo period, c. 1787–99

In Sparrows Alighting on Wisteria, Rosetsu depicts 17 iterations of the same species of sparrow, varying the posture of each so that the painting might depict a flock or perhaps describes the exquisitely observed movements of a single bird coming in to land.

Puppies with Hotei and Jittoku (Edo period, 1786–92) by Nagasawa RosetsuHarvard Art Museums

Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799)
Puppies with Hotei and Jittoku
Edo period, 1786–92

The three puppies playing in the center of this triptych are flanked by the jovial deity Hotei, with his round belly and staff at right, and Jittoku, the otherworldly temple groundskeeper holding his emblematic broom at left. The central panel of a Buddhist triptych would normally be occupied by a Buddha. Here, the puppies gamboling beneath bamboo may be interpreted as an iconoclastic representation of enlightenment, often associated in the Zen tradition with eruptions of spontaneous laughter: the Chinese character for “laughter” 笑 is made up of the component parts for “dog” 犬 and “bamboo” 竹. Rosetsu, one of Maruyama Ōkyo’s best-known students, was himself an adherent of Zen, and these appealing paintings resonate strongly with the gestural spontaneity of Zen ink painting.

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


Folding fans made of paper and bamboo were used to keep the heat of the Japanese summer at bay. At the end of the season, used fans might be elegantly floated downriver by their owners—both men and women—in celebration of the arrival of autumn. Yet the intimate, ephemeral nature of the fan belies its cultural and symbolic weight. More than utilitarian objects, fans were used to beckon the gods during ritual ceremonies, to offer auspicious tidings, or to convey romantic sentiments; they were given as gifts and brandished as refined accessories. Edo painters embraced the challenges of the format to produce highly inventive compositions that played on its wealth of poetic, seasonal, and auspicious associations as well as its uniquely kinetic surface. Some of the painted fans exhibited here were intended to be mounted flat on folding screens, while others have been separated from the bamboo ribs to which they were originally attached and carefully preserved.

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

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

Eight Fans of Seasonal Flowers and Plants (Edo period, c. 1828–58) by Suzuki KiitsuHarvard Art Museums

Suzuki Kiitsu (1796–1858)
Eight Fans of Seasonal Flowers and Plants
Edo period, c. 1828–58

Fans of the Twelve Months (Edo period, 1844–58) by Suzuki KiitsuHarvard Art Museums

Suzuki Kiitsu (1796–1858)
Fans of the Twelve Months
Edo period, 1844–58

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

Remembering Edo

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.

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

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

Momoyogusa (Flowers of a Hundred Worlds) (Meiji era, 1909–10) by Kamisaka SekkaHarvard Art Museums

Kamisaka Sekka (1866–1942)
Momoyogusa (Flowers of a Hundred Worlds)
Published by Unsōdō, Kyoto
Meiji era, 1909–10

This printed book is one of the touchstone achievements of modern Japanese woodblock printing. It showcases milestone modern compositions whose visual appeal can stand independently of their traditional symbolic content, and was produced to an extraordinarily high standard of technical artistry. Sekka began his artistic training in Kyoto under a Shijō master, specializing in a gauzy, semi-naturalistic mode of painting. But a shock encounter with Japanese-inspired art nouveau in Europe galvanized him to develop a representatively “Japanese” aesthetic for the modern era, using the motifs and design principles associated with School of Kōrin painting. Sekka’s heavy involvement in the institutionalization of design education in Kyoto, art criticism, and publishing ensured that his influence continues to be felt to this day, particularly in the production of lacquerware.

Lotus in Autumn (Meiji era, 1872) by Okuhara SeikoHarvard Art Museums

Okuhara Seiko (1837–1913)
Lotus in Autumn
Meiji era, 1872

Seedpods hang from the tips of frail, bent stems in this wildly brushed painting by the female artist Okuhara Seiko. Sensationalized during her lifetime for cropping her hair and wearing male clothing, Seiko’s Chinese-style ink paintings were hugely popular in the years immediately following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Although her uninhibited style seems to speak to a modern individualistic sensibility, Seiko rooted her practice in the study of historical Chinese models. She underlines her identity as a scholar-recluse by inscribing a Chinese poem about the pleasures of drifting in a boat among lotuses under a moonlit sky. Her erratic wet-dry brushstrokes capture the messy decay of the autumnal lotuses, surrounding the viewer so that she, too, is among the stems.

Lotus Pond (Meiji era, late 19th–early 20th century) by Okutani ShūsekiHarvard Art Museums

Okutani Shūseki (1871–1936)
Lotus Pond
Meiji era, late 19th–early 20th century

Lotuses rise annually from the muddy depths of ponds to bloom with sublime beauty before setting seed, decaying, and disappearing once more. The unearthly flower has long been understood as a symbol of Buddhist enlightenment and rebirth. This large-scale iteration of a lotus pond is painted on two movable screens—ideal for display in Japan’s earliest public exhibitions, initiated in the late 19th century to support the formulation of a representatively “Japanese” aesthetic on the world stage. Shūseki paints the sacred subject matter in a contemporary neoclassical idiom, using the established technique of puddling ink and gold to realize the plant in naturalistic and expressionistic modes simultaneously.

The addition of a kingfisher in the right screen...

...and a dragonfly in the left, both captured in the instant before taking wing, poignantly infuses temporal specificity into the otherwise timeless subject.

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.

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