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Release Date: September 8, 2011

Backgrounder: Japan Spring Exhibitions from the Edo Period
Fact Sheet: The City of Edo and the Edo Period (1615-1868)

Washington, DC, is the first city outside of Japan to host three major exhibitions of masterworks by distinguished Edo-period artists. Each exhibition features not simply a retrospective of a distinctive and important painter and designer of the 18th and 19th centuries, but also specific thematic ensembles of works—perhaps the best efforts—created by Kazunobu, Hokusai, or Jakuchū over periods as long as a decade. Most of these works have never before been seen outside of Japan.

Masters of Mercy: Buddha's Amazing Disciples
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, March 10–July 8

From 1854 until his death in 1863, Japanese artist Kano Kazunobu (born 1816) labored to produce one hundred paintings depicting the miraculous interventions and superhuman activities of the five hundred disciples of the Buddha. The project was commissioned by Zōjōji, an elite Pure Land Buddhist temple in Edo. Now widely regarded as one of the most impressive feats of Buddhist iconography created during the Edo period, this remarkable ensemble was largely overlooked through much of the 20th century.

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, March 24–June 17

From about 1830 to 1832 Hokusai created his masterpiece, the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji. These works belong both to the very old tradition of famous Japanese landscape pictures and to the new genre of souvenir prints. As a result of the upsurge in travel during the Edo period, many of these prints were purchased by tourists seeking mementos as well as by vicarious travelers.

The lofty volcano Mount Fuji is considered a god in the Shinto pantheon and the symbol of Japan. Hokusai's views depict its many moods, depending on the season and even time of day. The people shown are real people of the time, captured by the townsman artist before the backdrop of the mountain he held in awe.

Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800)
National Gallery of Art, March 30-April 29

One of Japan's most renowned cultural treasures, Colorful Realm of Living Beings (c. 1757–1766) is a 30-scroll set of bird-and-flower paintings that has never before been shown in its entirety outside of Japan. Colorful Realm of Living Beings provides a panoramic pictorial survey of flora and fauna, both mythical and actual, reflecting the highest standards of artistic and technical accomplishment in Japanese painting. To evoke the work's original religious context, the Gallery is installing it with Jakuchū's Śākyamuni Triptych (The Buddha Śākyamuni, Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra), which belongs to the Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji Monastery, Kyoto. In 1765 Jakuchū donated Colorful Realm (then comprising 24 scrolls) and the triptych to Shōkokuji, where they were displayed in a large temple room during Buddhist rituals. Colorful Realm was donated to the Imperial Household in 1889; since then, it has been shown together with the triptych only once, in 2007 at the Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji.

Facts about the Edo Period (1615–1868)
Edo (present-day Tokyo) was probably the most populous city in the world during much of the 18th century. Its population was approximately one million inhabitants.

The early 17th-century settlement of Edo was the result of deliberate measures undertaken by the shogun, or feudal overlords, to create an imposing metropolis. Samurai were ordered to move from the countryside with their lords and reside within the precincts of the new capital. The resulting frenzied construction and reconstruction of the majestic Edo Castle, the large-scale building of samurai residential quarters, and temples and shrines at the city's periphery, subsequently lured craftsmen in large numbers. Unprecedented levels of consumption also attracted goods and workers from throughout Japan. Diverse opportunities for employment—as servants, shopkeepers, entertainers, hired laborers, or apprentices in nascent industries such as publishing—lured migrants from near and far. During the 18th century, the largest wooden city in the world experienced a series of disastrous fires. Between 1703 and 1721, Edo's two largest theaters burned to the ground eight times and more than one-third of the city went up in flames in 1772.

The city of Kyoto was Japan's ancient capital, serving as the seat of the imperium from the late eighth century until the end of the Edo period in 1868. Whereas Edo served as the new locus of political power with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, Kyoto maintained its vibrant role as a repository of traditional cultural knowledge and artistic practices throughout the premodern period. Against this backdrop, innovative artists from Kyoto's mercantile community—such as Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) and Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800)—emerged during the Edo period.

It is estimated that more than 25 percent of the total land area in Japan belonged to temples and shrines during the 18th century.

Artists in the Edo period worked in many media. A famous artist such as Ogata Kōrin was as likely to paint on a ceramic bowl or a woman's kimono as to design a lacquer box or paint on paper or silk.

Strict sumptuary laws in Edo Japan were designed to limit the conspicuous display of wealth by the merchant class. For example, merchants were not allowed to have household articles with gold lacquer decorations, use gold and silver leaf in their structures, build three-story houses, have elaborate weddings, or wear long swords or large short swords

In Edo Japan, rice was such an important commodity that it was used for samurai stipends and formed the basis of the economy. As living standards increased, a greater percentage of the population could use rice as the primary source of food. As such, the farmer and rice cultivation became symbols in Japanese art for economic prosperity, peace, and stability as well as for the simple rural life.

The art of the Edo period speaks to viewers in the West in a direct and powerful way, not only for its inherent qualities but also because so much of its aesthetic concurs with what we consider modern. Late 19th- and early 20th-century Japanese art, especially color woodblock prints, had a strong influence on artists such as Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.

General Information

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Anabeth Guthrie
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