Japanese Genre Painting

, University Study Gallery, Harvard Art Museums
University Study Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

In the Japanese context, as with most other fields, genre painting refers to the painting of everyday life. Until the mid- to late sixteenth century, painting was a representational medium reserved for the depiction of literary, religious, or mythological subjects; the depiction of ordinary people engaged in quotidian activities was a new practice. Initially, genre painting in Japan appears to have been embraced by newly risen warrior rulers who, by virtue of their low birth, had a greater interest in non-elite status groups. Patronage of such paintings, however, was also bolstered by the idea that portrayals of the happiness and prosperity of ordinary citizens clearly signaled benign rule. These portrayals were therefore seen as flattering and affirming of reigning sovereigns.

The popularity of genre painting quickly spread from the ruling class to urban commoners, and from the mid-seventeenth century onward became fashionable in the shogunal castle town of Edo (now Tokyo). It developed its own distinct visual idiom, eventually referred to as the ukiyo-e or “floating world picture” style. This style was applied to many urban pastimes, such as seasonal outings—to view the cherry blossoms or autumn foliage in scenic spots in and around the city—or the kabuki theater and pleasure quarters, with courtesans from these quarters being singled out for ukiyo-e portraits known as bijinga (“beauty paintings”). The ukiyo-e style also became the basis for print culture, leading to the flourishing of the single-sheet Japanese woodblock print.

In the sixteenth century, the creators of genre works were members of elite professional painting ateliers such as the Kano and Tosa schools; they based their works on classical Japanese paintings. By the second half of the seventeenth century, the ukiyo-e school was represented by recognizable artists such as Hishikawa Moronobu, who both painted and drew designs for illustrated books and prints. One of his leading disciples, Hishikawa Morohira, is represented in this gallery with a rare and important pair of six-panel folding screens depicting popular pastimes of Edo. The selection of works here showcases a variety of different subjects as well as stylistic development over time.

This installation complements courses taught by Yukio Lippit, Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University; and Melissa McCormick, Harvard College Professor and Professor of Japanese Art and Culture, Harvard University. The University Teaching Gallery serves faculty and students affiliated with Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture (HAA). Semester-long installations are mounted here in conjunction with undergraduate and graduate courses, supporting instruction in the critical analysis of art.

The installation of Japanese paintings from the collection of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg is made possible in part by funding from Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg and the Gurel Student Exhibition Fund.

Caption: Attributed to Hishikawa Morohira (fl. c. 1688–1704), Cherry Blossom Celebrations, Japanese, Edo period, late 17th century. One of a pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, and gold on paper. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Promised gift of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, TL41326.6. Photo: John Tsantes and Neil Greentree; © Robert Feinberg.