The Beautiful Legacy of Edo Art

An early egalitarian art form still inspires

| July-August 1999

The exquisite art of Japan's Edo period is vivid proof that creativity feeds on peace. In the early 17th century, Edo, the city now known as Tokyo, emerged as Japan's urban hub and one of the world's great cultural centers. Ruled for 253 years by feudal overlords from the Tokugawa clan—the last shogun line—what many call “early modern Japan” was a remarkably stable society. Its thriving merchants began to indulge in luxuries they once could not afford, a quiet revolution reflected in the era's vital and elegant arts.

The diversity and beauty of the Edo aesthetic is strikingly evident in Edo: Art in Japan: 1615-1868 (Yale, $100), the hardbound catalog for the acclaimed exhibit that closed last winter at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (A paperback version is available for $35 from the National Gallery.) Assembled by guest curator Robert T. Singer and others, the book includes several essays by renowned Edo art historians and scholars as well as 281 color reproductions. The exhibit, assembled from far-flung sources, was a one-time deal, making the book perhaps the only way to enjoy the survey if you missed it firsthand.

Among the pictured objects are scroll paintings, embroidered kosode (short-sleeved kimonos), exquisite porcelain, lacquered boxes, armor, woodblock portraits, and large folding screens. Much of Edo art is known for its bold form and content, and many artists were commoners. Without compromising the intricate beauty typical of earlier Japanese styles, artists began portraying life within their own classes, as suggested by images of field laborers, actors, sumo wrestlers, and courtesans.

Although Edo art met with some resistance in Japan for departing from tradition, the Edo legacy is now honored there and elsewhere for its elegance, energy, and craftsmanship. Edo art directly influenced the European pioneers of modernism—van Gogh, Matisse, and Toulouse-Lautrec, to name a few. As another century ends, it seems almost inevitable that artists working in today's media will turn yet again to the playful, pleasure-loving, graphically sophisticated Edo masters for a hit of inspiration. As a time capsule of a creative and peaceful age, Edo makes it all the more likely that their impact will endure.