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Yamato-e: Traditions of Beauty from the Imperial Court

  • Image of "Pine Trees on Seashore (detail), Muromachi period, 16th century (Important Cultural Property)"

    Pine Trees on Seashore (detail), Muromachi period, 16th century (Important Cultural Property)

    Japanese Archaeology and Special Exhibition (Heiseikan) Special Exhibition Galleries
    October 11, 2023 (Wed) - December 3, 2023 (Sun)

    The Yamato-e genre of painting was established in the early Heian period and remained popular while undergoing dramatic changes throughout time. While often viewed as an orthodox genre, artists of different eras frequently incorporated the latest painting trends in their Yamato-e paintings. In fact, their constant innovations can be considered to be a major characteristic of the genre.

    This exhibition introduces a selection of outstanding Yamato-e paintings from the Heian to the Muromachi period. These works were created over a period of over a thousand years, and even though they inherited the traditional Yamato-e aesthetics of the imperial court, they were also highly innovative. The collection of paintings exhibited in this exhibition can be considered a textbook of Japanese art, and provides a comprehensive overview of the magnificent development of the genre of Yamato-e.

Yamato-e Japanese-style Paintings

Yamato-e Japanese-style paintings occupy an enduring and illustrious place in the history of Japanese painting.
Painting appreciation in Japan from the Asuka period (593–710) to the Nara period (710–794) revolved around kara-e Chinese-style paintings, mainly from Sui and Tang dynasty China. During the early Heian period, though, Japanese artists also began to depict the activities of Japanese people and familiar Japanese scenery. This movement marked the advent of the Yamato-e genre.
From the Kamakura period (1192–1333) onwards, suibokuga ink paintings and other works from the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties arrived in Japan. These were recognized as kanga, a form of Chinese painting distinct from kara-e. The term “Yamato-e” was now contrasted with kanga to refer to paintings produced in the traditional way.


Highlights of the Exhibition

* During the exhibition there will be rotation in which some of the artworks will be replaced with other works.
Different volumes or scenes from a particular artwork may be shown at different times.






Tradition and Innovation: The Changing Face of Yamato-e Japanese-style Paintings

The concept of Yamato-e paintings evolved over time and their contents also changed significantly, with the genre developing along its own unique path while engaging in dialogue with Chinese-style painting genres like kara-e and kanga.
Heian-period Yamato-e paintings were polychromatic works produced using the same brushes and paints as kara-e, with the two genres distinguished instead by whether they depicted Japan or China. In contrast, from the late Kamakura period onwards, Yamato-e and kanga Chinese paintings were mainly differentiated by their techniques.
This exhibition begins by presenting an overview of the history of Yamato-e Japanese painting through a comparison with kara-e and kanga Chinese-style paintings.

Kamakura period, 13th century (National Treasure, Jingo-ji Temple, Kyoto)

On exhibit from October 11 through November 5, 2023


Sun and Moon Landscapes of the Four Seasons
Muromachi period, 15th century (National Treasure, Kongō-ji Temple, Osaka)

On exhibit from November 7 through December 3, 2023


Chapter 1
The Advent of Yamato-e: The Heian Period

The development of Yamato-e was profoundly influenced by waka poetry, the cornerstone of Japanese court culture. Famous places and scenes from these poems gave rise to genres such as meisho-e (pictures of famous places), shiki-e (pictures of the four seasons), and tsukinami-e (pictures of the activities of each month), with these paintings in turn inspiring the creation of new poetry and literature.
The customs and landscapes of Yamato-e also spilled over into other genres, including copybooks, decorated scrolls, and decorative art objects. Many magnificent illustrated scrolls were also produced during the Heian period. These laid the foundations for the golden age of illustrated scrolls in Japan and they also had an important impact.
Few Heian-period Yamato-e paintings are still with us today. This chapter utilizes some of the precious remaining examples to explore the emergence and subsequent development of these Japanese-style paintings.

Koto Zither (from the Old Divine Treasures, Properties of the Principal Deity)
Heian period, 12th century (National Treasure, Kasuga Shrine, Nara)

On exhibit from October 11 through November 5, 2023


Collection of Japanese and Chinese Verses for Singing (J. Wakan Rōeishū) (Ōta-gire Segment); Vol. 2
Attributed to Fujiwara no Kintō, Heian period, 11th century (National Treasure, Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo)

On exhibit from November 7 through December 3, 2023


Chapter 2
New Forms of Yamato-e: The Kamakura Period

Although the warrior class seized the reins of power in the Kamakura period (1192–1333), the court and noble society continued to play a leading role in the production of Yamato-e paintings.
“Naturalism” is often spoken about in the context of Kamakura-period art. Contemporary artists did indeed pursue naturalism, but they also idealized their subjects too. This pursuit of the ideal in art was also expressed in a longing and yearning for a lost courtly age of yore. Illustrated scrolls also evolved during this period. Until the Heian period, they had portrayed illustrated tales and legends, but the genre now expanded to encompass biographies of eminent priests and tales about the origins of temples, for example.
This chapter introduces the essence of the Yamato-e paintings that emerged during the Kamakura-period from a new sense of individuality and aesthetic awareness.

Vols. 10 (detail)

Illustrated Biography of the Priest Ippen
By En’i, Kamakura period, dated 1299 (National Treasure, Shōjōkō-ji (Yugyō-ji) Temple, Kanagawa)

Vols. 9:On exhibit from October 11 through October 22, 2023/On exhibit from October 24 through November 5, 2023
Vols. 10:On exhibit from November 7 through November 19, 2023/On exhibit from November 21 through December 19, 2023 (Two scenes from each volume will be shown at different times.)


Detached Segment of Illustrated Diary of Lady Murasaki
Kamakura period, 13th century (Important Cultural Property, Tokyo National Museum)


Chapter 3
The Heyday of Yamato-e: The Nanbokuchō and Muromachi Periods

We tend to associate painting from the Nanbokuchō and Muromachi periods with suibokuga ink paintings. However, Yamato-e Japanese-style paintings were also produced in volume and they also found favor with military generals and other members of the warrior class.
Yamato-e became more resplendent and dazzling, their surfaces decorated with gold, silver, mica, and a riot of colors, for example. Furthermore, rather than standing in opposition, Yamato-e and kanga Chinese paintings borrowed techniques and compositional styles from each other to create a new aesthetic fusion of Japanese and Chinese art. This era also saw a boom in paintings inspired by new forms of poetry and literature such as renga linked verse and otogizōshi short stories.
This chapter looks back to the heyday of Yamato-e paintings during the Nanbokuchō and Muromachi periods, a time of pivotal change for Japanese culture.


Illustrated Scroll of Night Procession of a Hundred Demons
Attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu, Muromachi period, 16th century (Important Cultural Property, Shinju-an Temple, Kyoto)

On exhibit from October 11 through November 5, 2023/On exhibit from November 7 through December 3, 2023 (Two scenes from this scroll will be shown at different times.)

Writing Box, with design of Kinuta Fulling Block
Muromachi period, 15th century (Important Cultural Property, Tokyo National Museum)


Chapter 4
The Lineage of the Court’s Edokoro Painting Atelier

The edokoro was an official court atelier that produced paintings to order from the emperor and the nobility. We still have paintings by edokoro painters such as Tokiwa Mitsunaga (active at the end of the Heian period), Takashina Takakane (end of the Kamakura period), and Tosa Yukihiro, Rokkaku Jakusai and Awataguchi Ryūkō (end of the Nanbokuchō period to the Muromachi period). Tosa Mitsunobu and his son Mitsumochi both served long spells as azukari (edokoro head painters) during the late Muromachi period.
Paintings by the court’s edokoro atelier reflected not only the tastes and the latest fashions of the day but also the individuality of the painters who created them. They play a central role in the history of Yamato-e painting and they represent the highest artistic standards of each era. This chapter explores the essence of Yamato-e paintings through the works of these court painters who imbued Japanese art with its sense of “Japaneseness.”

Vols. 5 (detail)

Illustrated Scroll of Annual Events (Sumiyoshi Version)
By Sumiyoshi Jokei and others; Original by Tokiwa Mitsunaga, Edo period, dated ca. 1661

Vols. 1:On exhibit from October 11 through October 22, 2023
Vols. 3:On exhibit from October 24 through November 5, 2023
Vols. 5:On exhibit from November 7 through November 19, 2023
Vols. 6:On exhibit from November 21 through December 3, 2023

Fan-shaped Scene from The Tale of Genji
Attributed to Tosa Mitsumoto, Muromachi period, 16th century (Tokyo National Museum)

On exhibit from October 11 through November 19, 2023


Final Chapter
Yamato-e and the Four Seasons: The Enduring Beauty of the Imperial Court

Yamato-e Japanese-style paintings occupied a central role in Japanese art for around 1000 years. The genre’s central themes encompassed the daily lives and cultural pastimes of the Japanese people; scenes of nature amid the changing seasons; flowers, birds and other flora and fauna; and scenery associated with famous places from waka poems. These themes intertwine within Yamato-e paintings replete with motifs from each season, such as shiki-e (pictures of the four seasons,) and tsukinami-e (pictures of the activities and scenery of each month). The changing seasons were a major theme of Yamato-e.
This final chapter focuses on works that borrow elements from these shiki-e paintings. In doing so, it reveals the essential nature of Yamato-e as a genre that honored past traditions while also taking on board new forms of expression.

Eight-fold screen (detail)

Genre Scenes of the Twelve Months
Muromachi period, 16th century (Important Cultural Property, Tokyo National Museum)

On exhibit from October 11 through November 5, 2023


Landscape with Sun and Moon
Muromachi period, 16th century (Important Cultural Property, Tokyo National Museum)

On exhibit from November 7 through December 3, 2023

Landscape with Sun and Moon
Muromachi period, 16th century (Important Cultural Property, Tokyo National Museum)

On exhibit from October 11 through November 5, 2023


General Information

Period October 11–December 3, 2023
Venue Heiseikan, Tokyo National Museum (Ueno Park)
Hours 9:30–17:00
* 9:30 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays
*The Regular Exhibitions close at 5:00 pm. However, they will be open until 7:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays starting November 3.
* Last admission 60 minutes before closing
Closed Mondays
* except for November 27 (All other exhibitions are closed on November 27.)
Access 10-minute walk from JR Ueno Station (Park exit) and Uguisudani Station
15-minute walk from Keisei Ueno Station, Tokyo Metro Ueno Station and Tokyo Metro Nezu Station
Organizers Tokyo National Museum, NHK, NHK Promotions Inc., The Yomiuri Shimbun
With the Special Sponsorship of TOPPAN INC., Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Compang, Limited
Catalog The exhibition catalog (3,300 yen) is available at the Heiseikan Special Exhibition Shop and at the museum shop in Honkan (Japanese Gallery).
General Inquiries 050-5541-8600 (Hello Dial)
Exhibition Website https://yamatoe2023.jp/