In the harshly controlled feudal society governed for over 250 years by the descendants of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), creativity came not from its leaders, a conservative military class, but from the two lower classes in the Confucian social hierarchy, the artisans and merchants. Although officially denigrated, they were free to reap the economic and social benefits of this prosperous age. The tea ceremony, which had been adopted by every class during the Momoyama period, provided the medium in which literary and artistic traditions of the past were assimilated and transformed by highly cultivated men of both the bourgeoisie and the court. By the late 1630s, contact with the outside world was cut off through official prohibition of foreigners. In Japan’s self-imposed isolation, traditions of the past were revived and refined, and ultimately parodied and transformed in the flourishing urban societies of Kyoto and Edo. Restricted trade with Chinese and Dutch merchants was permitted in Nagasaki, and it spurred development of Japanese porcelain and provided an opening for Ming literati culture to filter into artistic circles of Kyoto and, later, Edo.
By the end of the seventeenth century, three distinct modes of creative expression flourished. The renaissance of Heian culture accomplished by aristocrats and cultivated Kyoto townsmen was perpetuated in the painting and crafts of the school that later came to be called Rinpa. In urban Edo, which assumed a distinctive character with its revival after a devastating fire in 1657, a witty, irreverent expression surfaced in the literary and visual arts, giving rise to the kabuki theater and the well-known woodblock prints of the “floating world,” or ukiyo-e. In the eighteenth century, a Japanese response to the few threads of Chinese literati culture, introduced by Ming Chinese monks at Manpuku-ji south of Kyoto, resulted in a new style known as bunjin-ga (“literati painting”), or nanga (“painting of the southern school”) after the Ming term for literati painting. Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these various styles were embraced by Japanese artists and artisans as distinct but nonexclusive and complementary modes of expression.
Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Edo Period (1615–1868).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/edop/hd_edop.htm (October 2003)
Guth, Christine. Japanese Art of the Edo Period. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995.
Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Singer, Robert T., ed. Edo: Art in Japan, 1615–1868. Washington: D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1998.