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

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

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

Floating Worlds

Ukiyo-e, or pictures of the “floating world” (ukiyo) of Edo’s licensed brothel and theater districts, took contemporaneity as their chief subject. Ukiyo-e painters drew on the lively visual infill of conventional large-scale genre paintings, bringing small groups or individual figures from the background into the spotlight. By isolating idealized beauties and Kabuki actors against often neutral backgrounds, they were also able to distill the charisma of these newly fashionable subjects into paintings that engaged viewers by creating a fictive sense of participation or voyeurism. While based on actual festivities and leisure activities, floating-world pictures are premised on a communal fantasy in which the strictures of Tokugawa society and the realities of the indentured lives of Edo’s entertainers are displaced by the celebration of pleasures taken in the fleeting present moment.

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 Portuguese Trading Ship Arrives in Japan (Edo period, 17th century) by Unidentified artistHarvard Art Museums

Unidentified artist
A Portuguese Trading Ship Arrives in Japan
Edo period, 17th century

The new genre paintings of the floating world, which promoted background figures to subjects in their own right, drew on the conventions of earlier works depicting auspicious seasonal events. These screens portray the arrival of a Portuguese ship at a Japanese port (left) and the procession of the captain into town (right).

Townspeople peer through shop windows to glimpse the exotic mariners, dressed in vividly patterned Southeast Asian fabrics and surrounded by golden mist.

The Portuguese first reached Japan in 1543 and established an annual voyage to trade silver, silks, and spices. Although the Christian religion they brought with them was banned in 1614, the welcome arrival of these ships bearing precious cargo remained a popular auspicious painting subject until the mid- 17th century.

Early Evening at a Yoshiwara Inn (Edo period, late 17th century) by Hishikawa MoronobuHarvard Art Museums

Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694)
Early Evening at a Yoshiwara Inn
Edo period, late 17th century

This intimate early floating-world painting offers the viewer a scripted opportunity to participate in an imaginary visit to a Yoshiwara teahouse, from arrival and greeting (at right) to a night spent with a courtesan (far left). Between these moments, teahouse workers bustle around the heart of the establishment preparing a meal. Although the figures are individualized by gestures and postures, their faces are relatively neutral, leaving space for projection. The blurred boundaries at the edges imbue the scene with a gentle, dreamlike quality.

Seated Beauty (Edo period, c. 1800–1802) by Kitagawa UtamaroHarvard Art Museums

Kitagawa Utamaro (d. 1806)
Seated Beauty
Edo period, c. 1800–1802

A lone courtesan pores over a sheet of poetry paper as she considers what to write. Above her float the words of a love poem, inscribed in the masculine hand of Edo poet Kikuchi Gozan (1769–1849):

Thinking of you, compelled to compose
a verse.
Under the lamplight, writing through the night,
of our lost years.

Is this the poem to which she is crafting a reply? Or has she herself adopted a male voice? Utamaro revolutionized the portrayal of the psychological state of floating-world women, the vast majority of whom were indentured to their “houses” (brothels) by contract, from which a fortunate few might hope to be bought out by a wealthy client.

Here, in a surprising twist, the woman’s contemplative gaze is met by the golden-yellow eyes of the muscular carp that looks up at her from the pool of her sumptuously decorated robes.

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

School of Kōrin

The school of Kōrin (Kōrin-ha) was a loose, self-affiliating lineage of painters who worked with a rich polychrome palette defied by azurite blue, malachite green, and gold to depict motifs drawn from classical literature and painting. Although it originated in imperial Kyoto, the movement of political power to Edo in the 17th century opened up a market for School of Kōrin paintings among newly affluent urbanites in the east who were eager to acquire a patina of classical elegance. In the early 19th century, Edo-born Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828) set about establishing a new and highly successful branch of the School of Kōrin in his native city, later dubbed Edo Rinpa. Its export to Europe in the late 19th century had a seismic impact, catalyzing the development of art nouveau. Today, it is clear that Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716), for whom the lineage was named, in fact took his inspiration from the work of Tawaraya Sōtatsu (active c. 1600–1640), the gifted and influential proprietor of a Kyoto fan shop.

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

Flowers of the Four Seasons (Edo period, 17th century) by Sōtatsu School, I’nen SealHarvard Art Museums

Sōtatsu School, I’nen Seal
Flowers of the Four Seasons
Edo period, 17th century

The seasons in this virtual garden progress from right to left: in the right-most panels of the right screen, springtime yellow kerria roses grow above young pines, violets, and bracken shoots; a notional path then leads to butterflies fluttering above magnificent summer peonies. In the left screen, autumnal chrysanthemums transition to wintry nandina with scarlet berries, white narcissus, and bamboo grass. Painted gardens such as this—the result of the cross-fertilization of imported Chinese and Korean paintings with classical Japanese themes at a moment when Kyoto’s elite were enthusiastically landscaping their own physical gardens— were a specialty of the I’nen Studio of Tawaraya Sōtatsu (active c. 1600–1640). This example is unique for its inclusion of insects with the luxuriant flora.

[Click and drag right to view both screens]

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

Tawaraya Sōri (active mid- to late 18th century)
Autumn Maple Trees
Edo period, second half 18th century

Of the handful of surviving works by Sōri, this screen is recognized as his masterpiece. A single branch of green leaves amid the otherwise brilliant red foliage suggests the setting is early fall. Following the finest works in the Kōrin tradition, Sōri showcases the intrinsic appeal of painting’s materiality.

The interplay between the pooled ink on the tree trunks and the sheen of the gold ground beneath, for example, results in a mottled texture that conveys both the organic texture of the bark and a subtly abstract effect, complementing the vivid leaves. Little is known about Sōri, but it is possible that he met Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828) in Edo. This would place Sōri at the epicenter of the 19th-century revitalization of the School of Kōrin.

Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba (Edo period, c. 1835–43) by Suzuki KiitsuHarvard Art Museums

Suzuki Kiitsu (1796–1858)
Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba
Edo period, c. 1835–43

Two of Japan’s most famous peaks—Mount Fuji to the west of Edo and Mount Tsukuba to the northeast—are depicted on the recto and verso of this fan by School of Kōrin painter Suzuki Kiitsu. In the early modern era, Mount Fuji was conventionally depicted snowy white, its summit divided into three peaks. Mount Tsukuba was painted blue with two peaks. Kiitsu wittily takes advantage of the transparency of the fan paper by allowing the silhouette of each mountain to define the form of the other: when held to the light, the snow line of Fuji reveals itself also to be the profile of Tsukuba, painted on the reverse. Similarly, Fuji appears to loom behind Tsukuba, suggesting that the fictive viewing position is Edo itself, safeguarded between the two sacred mountains.

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

Continue your visit

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.” 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 Three of this four-part online exhibition.

Explore more on the museums’ website.


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