Japanese Masterpieces From the Edo Period at the Met

edo period

The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents The Flowering of Edo Period Painting: Japanese Masterworks from the Feinberg Collection until September 7, 2014. The exquisite assemblage is on loan from the private collection of the American art collectors Robert and Betsy Feinberg. The Feinbergs devoted more than 40 years to studying and collecting Japanese art. Their curiosity of this particular genre has been traced back to their 1972 visit to the Met. While at the museum, the Feinbergs especially admired an Edo Period painting. They walked away with their first acquisition, a “steal.” It was a $2 poster of a 16th century screen painting that pictured a Portuguese ship arriving in Japan, similar to the actual screens on display in the exhibit.

Without any thought of assembling a collection, the Feinbergs gradually came across and purchased paintings from the Edo period. Since that initial trip, the Feinbergs have amassed a remarkable collection of 300 Japanese works from not only the popular Kano or Tosa schools, but independent schools as well.

The artworks in their collection narrate a well-rounded chronicle of Edo art and depict multiple cultural narratives with secular and religious themes. The Met exhibit surveys their artwork collection from five Japanese genres – Rinpa, literati, Maruyama-Shijō, the Eccentrics and Ukiyo-e. Each period takes visitors on a journey through various painting schools and styles, from the movement of the 17th century Tokugawa shogunate to the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

With more than 90 paintings, folding screens and hanging scrolls, the exhibit gives visitors the opportunity to observe how Japanese painting evolved from the traditional modes of Japanese (Yamato-e) styles along with Chinese styles that endured through medieval times. The core of the collection ranges in date from 1600 through 1868.

edo periodWhen social stability swept throughout 17th and 18th century Japan, commoners were soon wealthy and began to appreciate and endorse the culture that was once unavailable to them. A new school of painters emerged. These painters diverged from artists who worked on commission for the shogunate. These artists created paintings that were free of the constraints placed upon them in earlier centuries. The artwork that was generated from these independent schools expressed a creativity that fostered stylistic freedom.

Instead of concentrating on the conformist methods of the Tosa and Kano ateliers, the Japanese masterpiece exhibit highlights styles such as Rinpa, Maruyama-Shijō, Nanga, and Ukiyo-e, along with independent Edo period painters. With works of nearly every major Edo painter presented, the show serves as an excellent overall introduction to Edo painting.

The array of masterpieces portray suasive scenes from nature, East Asian history, legend and literature and people in everyday life. Tawaraya Sotatsu’s ink Tiger hanging scroll from the Edo period (1630-40) and Gion Seitoku’s ink and color hanging scroll, Woman Applying Makeup are just a few of the exhibit’s highlights. The traditional Chinese-influenced, black-and-white literati painting on show is striking against the dynamic polychromes of the Rinpa school, as seen in Suzuki Kiitsu’s gold-washed silk scroll.

Also on exhibit are 19th century Edo Rinpa painters like Sakai Hoitsu’s  Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months set of 12 hanging scrolls in ink, color and gold paint on silk (1817-1828), and Suzuki Kiitsu’s Cranes (1828-early 1830s), a powerful pair of two-paneled gold-on-silk folding screens. Eighteenth century works by Kyoto masters such as Yosa Buson, Nagasawa Rosetsu, and Ike no Taiga; Maruyama Ōkyo and Soga Shōhaku are also represented.

At the conclusion of the exhibition, visitors can survey several demimonde masterpieces of the Ukiyo-e school (renowned for their woodblock prints) presented with their accurately detailed paintings thought to have been consigned by affluent patrons.

By Dawn Levesque

Edo-Tokyo Museum
Harvard Art Museum
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The New Yorker

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