Unification and Endurance: From Fortresses to Cities

Momoyama period (1568–1600)
Edo period (1600–1868)

Selections from the Collection

The Momoyama period is named for the peach–tree covered hill south of Kyoto upon which the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s (1536–1598) Fushimi Castle once stood. It is also referred to as the “Azuchi-Momoyama” era, a term that incorporates the site of a famous castle built to the northeast of Kyoto by the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582). The Momoyama period stands as a distinct and important era for the development of the arts and architecture. Although the dates for this short era are still debated by scholars, some use the year 1573, when Oda Nobunaga deposed the last Ashikaga shogun, Yoshiaki, as a beginning date, while others cite 1615, when Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616) wrestled control from the Toyotomi family at Osaka Castle, to define its end. Many also use the years 1568, when Oda Nobunaga first entered Kyoto, and 1600, the year of Nobunaga's defeat of the Toyotomi forces at Sekigahara, as the beginning and end dates of the era. The period marks the transition to a more unified, centralized government. The aesthetics of tea culture and the performing art of Nō played a central role in the sometimes sensitive, sometimes dramatically violent negotiations carried out by the leaders of the day, as did the construction and interior décor of castles, tea rooms (chashitsu) and shōin style residential architecture. Momoyama culture was also marked by an unusually intense level of contact with other countries. Encounters with Europeans brought a host of new religious, scientific, and artistic elements into play, while Hideyoshi’s aggressive tactics on the Korean peninsula resulted in the forced immigration of skilled Korean potters and artisans, whose work as ceramicists had a prominent influence on tea wares.

The four most famous castles of the time were Oda Nobunaga’s at Azuchi and Hideyoshi’s at Fushimi, Osaka, and the Uchino neighborhood of Kyoto. This last castle of Hideyoshi’s was known as the Jurakutei, or “Mansion of the Assembled Pleasures.” The elaborate polychromatic and golden interior designs of the great structures were executed by efficient workshops organized by the Kano family of painters, and most notably by the artist Kano Eitoku (1543–1590). Unfortunately, none of these structures survive today, although extant sliding door panels and screen paintings by Kano School artists of the era provide some sense of the grandeur of the projects. Relative to previous eras, shrine and temple architecture arguably played a secondary role during the Momoyama era. However, religious monuments constructed or restored by military leaders of the day, such as Chikubushima Shrine and the temples Hōkōji and Kōdaiji in Kyoto, showcased the formidable talents of the era’s lacquer artists and wood carvers, as well as the those of the main atelier for Buddhist sculpture, the Seventh Avenue Studio in Kyoto. The temple Hōkōji, which had a huge statue of the Buddha Vairocana as its central focus of worship, was meant by Hideyoshi to rival the temple Tōdaiji in Nara. However, the Hōkōji construction campaign was plagued by natural disasters and fires. Its original structure, as well as those of the Hōkoku Shrine compound (built to honor Hideyoshi) on its grounds, survive today only in representations appearing in screen paintings such as those of the “Scenes in and around the Capital of Kyoto” variety, a theme conceived of in the Muromachi period that enjoyed continued popularity in the Momoyama era as genre painting flourished. The ostentatious qualities of Momoyama–period military and religious structures contrasted sharply yet harmoniously with the austere tea houses constructed under the influence of men like Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591) and Kobori Enshū (1579–1647), whose aesthetics emphasized restraint and simplicity.

Performances of the tea ceremony (chanoyu) held within the walls of rustic tea houses provided a forum for the display of calligraphy old and new. Along with the writings of famous Zen masters of the past (bokuseki), hanging scrolls fashioned from cut fragments from ancient poem scrolls (uta gire) were featured as conversation pieces displayed in the alcoves (tokonoma) of tea houses. Viewing such works in a new context gave rise to the production of new works of calligraphy inspired by the old models. Most notable among the calligraphers of the day was Hon’ami Kōetsu (1588–1637), whose works were inspired by Heian-period calligraphers. A parallel trend in painting and the decorative arts eventually came to be known as the Rinpa School. Painters and artisans associated with this trend, such as Tawaraya Sōtatsu (d. 1643), are considered to have championed a revitalization of a distinctly Japanese aesthetic embodied in the yamato-e paintings of the Heian period. This style appealed both to the more cultured among the military lords, and court circles. In addition, a number of painters who developed their own styles, such as Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539–1610) and Kaihō Yūshō (1533–1615), enjoyed the patronage of both temples and military lords.

Following the battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and the final fall of the Toyotomi at Osaka Castle in 1615, a long period of relative political peace was ushered in under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu and successive generations of Tokugawa leaders. This span of some 250 years is known either as the Tokugawa era, or as the Edo period, for the location of the Tokugawa shogunate’s base of power in what is today the metropolis of Tokyo. Although Edo was initially only a small castle town, it grew into a city of approximately one million people by the beginning of the eighteenth century, thus becoming the largest city in the world. However, Kyoto remained the capital of Japan until the end of the Edo period.

The Tokugawa ensured peace through strict control over the population of Japan. A system called “alternate attendance” (sankin kōtai) forced the some 270 feudal lords administering the provinces to travel to and reside in Edo for set periods of time to prevent them from growing too wealthy or powerful in their home territories. Society was also rigidly divided into classes based upon Confucian values. The former military figures placed in charge of administering the country held the highest social positions, followed by farmers and artisans. Merchants, although occupying the lowest of the social classes, accumulated great wealth in cities like Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto, and provided a new base of patronage for the arts. The power of this mercantile economy eventually undercut the power of the shogunate. In 1868, with the ascension of the Meiji emperor, feudalism was abolished, and the Edo period drew to an end.

Beginning in 1639, the government initiated a policy of isolationism termed sakoku, whereby trade and contact with Asian and European merchants was strictly controlled and limited to the Nagasaki area. Despite such restrictions, foreign cultural imports such as Ming dynasty (1368–1644) literati culture from China continued to have a marked influence on Edo period thought and aesthetics.

As part of its scheme for societal control, the Tokugawa government saw to the creation of licensed “pleasure districts” in each of the country’s major cities. It was in these areas that the theater arts of Nō, Kabuki, and Bunraku (puppet plays) thrived, tea houses enjoyed popularity, and female courtesans provided musical and sexual entertainment to the influx of men from the provinces. The most famous of these districts was the Yoshiwara quarter of Edo. The flashy culture spawned by these urban entertainment areas was known as the “floating world” (ukiyo). Paintings and woodblock prints that recorded the images and activities of its denizens and visitors were called “floating world pictures” (ukiyo-e). Although printmaking had existed in Japan since the Nara period (710–794), the introduction of multi-block colored prints known as “brocade pictures” (nishiki-e) in the latter half of the eighteenth century revolutionized the medium. The first artist to gain his reputation through the production of nishiki-e was Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), whose images of famous courtesans often played upon classic themes of Confucian and Buddhist painting. While early Edo woodblock prints most often featured courtesans and Kabuki actors, with time, artists such as Andō Hiroshige (1797–1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) came to produce print series focusing on views of famous locations around Japan and bird-and-flower subjects. Significant to the development of Edo period printmaking were the changing tastes and fashions of the urban population, whose sensibilities dictated the commercial success or failure of print artists.

The studios of the Kano and Tosa Schools which had respectively enjoyed the support of the military regime and imperial court during the Muromachi and Momoyama eras continued to feature largely in officially sponsored projects of these traditional elites, and set the conservative standards for Japanese painting throughout the Edo period. Kano artists were stipended by the shogunate in Edo, and continued to maintain a workshop in Kyoto. They also developed numerous ateliers throughout the provinces. It was common for most artists to receive initial training in the style of the Kano or Tosa School before opening their own studios. By the late seventeenth century, the Tokugawa government extended its official patronage to the Sumiyoshi branch of the Tosa School, which set up a studio in Edo. Although technically accomplished, most of the works by painters of these official schools were not innovative or inspired, but rather served the purpose of preserving traditional styles. Knowledge of traditional styles and works also placed these official painters in the position of being able to provide connoisseurial consultations. Kano Tan’yū (1602–1674) is well known for his meticulous copies of Chinese and Japanese paintings he was requested to evaluate and appraise. Kano Osanobu (1796–1864), considered the last of the Kano masters, drew his style and subject matter from Kamakura-period handscrolls.

The circle of artists known today as the Rinpa School, after the artist Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716), continued to operate in Kyoto, and enjoyed a patron base of aristocrats, wealthy merchants, monks and samurai whose loyalties were more closely bound to traditional court society than to the new Tokugawa regime. Following Sōtatsu’s death, Tawaraya Sōsetsu (active mid-17th century) moved the atelier to Kanazawa, but after his own death, the lineage was revived in Kyoto by Ogata Kōrin and his brother Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743). Towards the end of the Edo period, Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828) and his followers once again revitalized the tradition, which had flagged in the hands of the Ogata brothers’ less competent successors. Early Edo period Rinpa painters retained their basic interest in the classical motifs and themes of Heian period art, which they rendered with bold color, gold, and complex graphic designs. Kōrin and Kenzan are especially well known for their collaborative work on painted ceramic designs. Later Rinpa artists operated out of Edo, and focused primarily on seasonal motifs in their works.

No less important to the cultural makeup of the Edo period were four other types of artists, the eccentrics (kijin), the scholar-amateurs (bunjin), painters in the Western style (yoga), and painters associated with Buddhist temples.

The eccentrics filled the desires of patrons who grew weary of the repetition inherent in the tradional styles of the Kano and Tosa Schools. The Kyoto artist Maruyama Ōkyō (1733–1795) and his atelier, the Maruyama Shijō studio, combined realism (shasei) with the bizarre, and were prominent among the eccentrics. Another Kyoto professional artist who developed a highly individualistic style was Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800), who looked to Chinese models for his paintings.

Scholar-amateur painters were by definition non-professionals who painted as a scholarly pastime, but a fair number of such self-identified individuals did participate in the art market, especially towards the end of the Edo period. Also known as literati painters, these cultured artists followed the scholarly ideals set forth in Chinese Ming dynasty tracts, most notably those authored by Dong Qichang (1555–1636). Their works were also directly influenced by the painting and calligraphy brought to Japan by Ōbaku Zen monks from China beginning in the second quarter of the 17th century. Among the most famous of the scholar-amateur painters were the artists Ike no Taiga (1723–1776) and Yosa Buson (1716–1783).

Many artists experimented with Western themes or styles in their works during the Edo period, but the works of those who most completely devoted themselves to the pursuit of Western techniques were referred to as yoga, or Western-style paintings. The work of the yoga artist Shiba Kōkan (1738–1818) was held in particularly high esteem.

Abstracted, expressive paintings that found their roots in medieval artistic practices associated with Zen monasteries were generally referred to as “Zen painting” (zenga). However, the religious artists painting in the style were not necessarily Zen monks, but belonged to other schools of Buddhism as well. This group had a measure of thematic and philosophical overlap with literati painters. Calligraphy and painting by the Zen monk-painter Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768) remains widely admired and imitated even today. The principles of zenga can also be considered to have carried over into the sculptures of the monk-sculptor Enkū (1628?–1695).

As with many of the arts of the period, Edo architecture had strong precedents in the forms developed during the Momoyama period. The most famous architectural projects of the era date to its early years. The Katsura detached palace, created for the prince Toshihito (1579–1629) between 1620 and 1624, exemplifies shōin style architecture, and incorporates tea houses into its gardens, which were designed based upon descriptions in the court classic Tale of Genji. In contrast to the simple, clean lines of the buildings at Katsura, the Tōshōgu shrine complex at Nikkō, built as a mausoleum and shrine for Tokugawa Ieyasu in the mid seventeenth century, is a dizzying puzzle of dense roof bracketing, wooden relief carvings, and bright colors. Its interiors, fashioned in the shōin style, do not follow the subdued, natural scheme found at Katsura, but rather mirror the flamboyant decorative paintings of Momoyama castles.

Further Readings

Berry, Mary Elizabeth, Hideyoshi. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982)

Guth, Christine, Art of Edo Japan: The Artist and the City, 1615–1868. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996)

Hickman, Money L., et. al., Japan’s Golden Age: Momoyama. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press in Association with Sun and Star 1996 and Dallas Museum of Art, 1996)

Rosenfield, John M., Extraordinary Persons: Works by Eccentric, Nonconformist Japanese Artists of the Early Modern Era (1580– 1868) in the Collection of Kimiko and John Powers. 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums, 1999)

Screech, Timon, The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan: The Lens within the Heart. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Shimizu, Yoshiaki, ed., Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, 1185 - 1868. (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1988)

Watsky, Andrew M., Chikubushima: Deploying the Sacred Arts in Momoyama Japan. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004)


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Anonymous, Japanese
Messenger Delivering a Letter
Japan, Kan'ei era, 2nd quarter of 17th century
Ink, colors, and gold on paper
143.5 x 154.5 cm.
Museum purchase with funds given by William R. McAlpin, Class of 1926
y1964-50