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The Edo era 1600-1868

Some years after 1603, the Tokugawa Shogunate was established at Edo (modern-day Tokyo) where it remained in power for the next 250 years. These were years of peace and stability in Japan, marked by isolation from the outside world, the growth of cities, economic development and social mobility. To begin with, the merchant class was at the bottom of the feudal social ladder while the samurai remained the ruling elite. As their wealth increased, however, the position and influence of the merchants rose accordingly.

Edo-era arts flourished under these new patrons. In painting, while the Kano school continued to receive official support from the shoguns, other schools explored different styles and found different masters. Artists such as Tawaraya Sotatsu (died around 1643) and Ogata Korin (1658-1716) stand out for reviving aspects of the Yamato-e tradition and injecting new decorative life into Japanese painting. Sotatsu's famous golden screen paintings based on The Tale of Genji dramatically adapt the subject matter and style of Heian-era emaki to this larger format. Korin's most noted works include the "Irises" screens, now held in Tokyo's Nezu Museum, which take an episode from a Heian-era novel, The Tale of Ise , and reduce its content to the striking patterns of flatly conceived blue irises and green leaves against a shimmering gold background.

In patronizing the arts, merchants sought not only reflections of their own affluence but also of their lifestyle. Paintings which depicted the often bawdy pleasures of city life came into vogue. The lively entertainment districts of Edo, Osaka and Kyoto, with their brothels, teahouses and Kabuki theatres, were depicted in painted screens and scrolls. This new genre of painting, ukiyo-e , or "pictures of the floating world", devoted itself to the hedonistic pastimes of the new rich. By the early eighteenth century, ukiyo-e were most commonly produced as hand-coloured woodblock prints which became gradually more sophisticated in their subtle use of line and colour as mass-printing techniques developed.

Catering to popular taste, late-eighteenth-century artists such as Harunobu, Utamaro and Sharaku portrayed famous beauties of the day and Kabuki actors in dramatic poses. Explicitly erotic prints known as shunga (spring pictures), were also big sellers, as were humorous scenes of daily life (manga), the forerunners of today's comics. Hokusai (1760-1849), perhaps the most internationally famous ukiyo-e artist, was originally known for his manga, but went on to create one of the most enduring images of Japan, The Great Wave , as part of his series the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji . Followed by the equally popular Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido, by Hiroshige (1797-1858), these later landscape prints were instantly popular at a time when travel was both difficult and restricted.

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