Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Cherry Blossom Viewing at Itsukushima and Yoshino

Edo period (1615–1868)
first half of the 17th century
Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, and gold leaf on paper
Image (each): 60 1/2 in. × 11 ft. 5 1/4 in. (153.6 × 348.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015
Accession Number:
2015.300.107.1, .2
Not on view
Both of these famous sites, or meisho, are celebrated for their scenic beauty and religious associations, but here sheer enjoyment and celebration of a beautiful spring day among people of all classes on holiday take center stage. The panoramic view of the rolling hills of Yoshino, near the ancient capital of Nara, is depicted on the right. The buildings of Itsukushima Shrine, near Hiroshima, are depicted rising from the water on the left. Each scene is framed in golden clouds, creating a dramatic setting for the many vignettes of dancing, picnicking, and pilgrimage.

The historic Itsukushima Shrine complex earned recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and remains a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination.
The image of the blossoming cherry has for centuries been nearly synonymous with the aesthetic values of Japan. Often used as a metaphor for the evanescence of life and of beauty, it has long been a common subject for poetry and a popular image in the visual arts. Interestingly, the plum blossom, not the cherry, was the favorite flower of the classical era, although cherry-blossom viewing was certainly practiced during Heian times. It was Saigyō (1118–1190; see cat. no. 79), the great waka poet, who helped initiate the cherry's rise to its venerated status.[1] Many of Saigyō's verses on the beauty of cherry blossoms were inspired by the region of the Yoshino Mountains, in central Nara Prefecture.

Dramatic panoramas of blossoming cherry trees at two famous scenic locations are spread across this pair of six-fold screens. The rolling mountains of Yoshino (at right), with their fabled groves of yamazakura (mountain cherries), and the elegant architectural structures of the Itsukushima Shrine, on Miyajima Island in the Inland Sea (at left), appear through a framework of golden clouds. The clouds themselves are ornamented with floral motifs raised above the surface of the screen with gofun, a gesso-like substance made from powdered seashells, and covered with gold leaf. Both landscapes abound in colorful figures—pilgrims, picnickers, merrymakers, and dancers. Details of nature and architecture are carefully rendered, as are textile patterns. While these impressive vistas can clearly be classified as meisho-e (pictures of famous places), they also include elements of fūzokuga (genre painting) in their careful depiction of contemporary activities and customs.

The concept of meisho as subject matter for art and literature evolved in Japan during the Heian period. Meisho-e may have begun to appear as early as the ninth century,[2] and they soon became an important category within the indigenous yamato-e tradition. However, the majority of extant meisho-e date from the Momoyama and Edo periods. These later works frequently blend characteristics of classical meisho-e, which emphasize literary content and seasonal associations, with aspects of fūzokuga drawn from folk and popular culture as well as ancient traditions. Because many meisho are closely identified with certain human activities—usually seasonal in nature—the two modes of painting complemented each other and, when combined, produced animated, richly decorative images such as the Burke screens.

The Yoshino and Itsukushima screens are connected thematically and compositionally by the profusion of pale pink and white blossoming cherry trees. Yoshino had been praised for its blossoms from the time of the Man'yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the earliest extant anthology of native poetry, compiled during the late eighth century. Although the mountains were also famed for their appearance in winter under snow,[3] by the sixteenth century images of Yoshino were devoted almost exclusively to the spring season. In addition to its poetic associations, the name "Yoshino" conjured up references to such important historical events as the attempt by Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1318–39) to wrest power from the shogunate and reinstate imperial rule.

The earliest known screens to depict Yoshino date from the late Muromachi period; they represent the landscape in cherry-blossom season, with only some consideration for the real topography of the region. Momoyama artists, including Hasegawa Sōtaku (fl. mid- 17th century), son of the great master Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539–1610), transformed the older prototype into a bolder, more striking composition, eliminating all but the gently rising green hills as background for the explosion of pink and white blossoms.[4] The ultimate expression of this format is the magnificent example by the much later Rinpa artist Watanabe Shikō (1683–1755), now in a private collection in Kyoto.

The Yoshino image in the Burke Collection retains the basic compositional scheme of Muromachi-period screens, extending from the Yoshino River, in the first panel at the right, to the Yoshimizu temple and the Katsute (Katte) Shrine in the fifth and sixth panels. But there the similarity to earlier works ends. The primary focus is now the activities of the men and women who have gathered to enjoy the beauty of the flowers at their peak. In this, the screens hark back to the ancient tradition of meisho-e, in which the human element is inseparable from the natural world. Various activities are in progress. In the second panel from the right, spectators from different classes ring a circle of dancers cavorting to the beat of drums. Garbed in crimson and gold and wearing headcloths, the dancers, tapping sticks together in time to the drumbeats, engage in fūryū odori—"fashionable" or "new" dances—which were in vogue during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Others enjoy outdoor meals screened from the view of passersby by fabric barriers raised on poles. The merrymakers in the fourth panel unpack picnics from tiered boxes similar in shape and design to the Ryūkyū Islands lacquers popular in Japan during the early seventeenth century.[6] The aristocratic figures seated on the ground at the far left are most likely engaged in composing poetry, an occupation ideally conducted under blossoming cherry trees.[7]

The Itsukushima screen presents an even more striking vista, with an undulating shoreline rendered in gold edged with white and the dramatic depiction of the Itsukushima Shrine at the center. The graceful complex, first built in the twelfth century by order of Kiyomori 1118–1181), the powerful head of the Heike clan, was reconstructed in the thirteenth century and renovated in the mid-1400s. Constructed in the palace style of the Late Heian period, the buildings feature symmetrical wings, lantern-hung galleries, and connecting walkways. A Nō stage is built out over the water. Access to the compound was by sea from Hiroshima Bay; pilgrims would arrive by boat, passing under the great red torii (Shinto gate) standing in the waves before the shrine.

Masked dancers engage in a street performance to the left of the shrine compound, and naked pilgrims purify themselves in the sea just beyond the village. To the left of the shrine proper stands the Daikyōdō, the sutra repository. The small village of Ari no Ura is farther to the left. The great rock capped by pine trees is Hōrai-iwa, named for the mythical island in the China Sea where, according to Chinese legend, immortal beings made their home.

Screens of famous places often depict two sites, one per screen. This is the only known instance in which Yoshino and Itsukushima are paired in this way. Itsukushima was commonly shown with Matsushima, in northern Japan, or with Arna no Hashidate, north of Kyoto. Yoshino, on the other hand, was usually depicted by itself, covering two screens. One reason for the pairing here may have been their significance as major pilgrimage sites. Another may be related to patronage and to the political environment of the early years of the seventeenth century. Both sites house monuments commissioned by members of the Toyotomi clan, and both are connected with events in the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), who united the country after more than a century of civil unrest. Hideyoshi's lavish excursion to Yoshino in 1594 was much celebrated in contemporary literature and painting. His connection with Itsukushima is less well known. In 1587, he ordered that the Senjōkaku (Thousand Mat Pavilion) be constructed next to the shrine as an offering. It appears in the lower central portion of the Burke screen. Attention is also drawn to this part of the composition by the passenger-laden boats that have congregated along the shore. It is quite possible that the screens were painted for a Toyotomi follower in western Japan, where "many ... remained secretly loyal [to the memory of Hideyoshi].[8]

Compositionally, the Burke screens provide a contrast between the rolling hills and mountains of Yoshino and the seacoast view of Itsukushima. Most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century screens depicting famous places feature panoramic views from a high vantage point, with attention devoted to topographical details and to the layout of architectural structures and their accurate placement within the landscape. The popularity of byōbu of this type may have resulted in part from the publication of meisho ki (illustrated guidebooks and travelogues) and in part from the increasing interest in recording everyday customs and colorful festivals against the backdrop of familiar scenic settings.

The Burke screens bear certain similarities to other works more or less firmly dated to the first years of the Edo period. The costumes of the revelers, pilgrims, and townsfolk are in keeping with the styles of the early 1600s.[9] While the unknown artist was most likely a machi-eshi (a town-based painter with no formal affiliation to any particular school), the linear brushwork of the rocks and boulders on the Itsukushima screen indicates that the artist had some experience with the methods of ink painting practiced by the Kano school.


[Miyeko Murase 2000, Bridge of Dreams]

[1] Miner, Odagiri, and Morrell 1985, p. 223.
[2] Chino Kaori 1980, pp. 115–21.
[3] K. Toda 1959, pp. 153–66; and Y. Shimizu 1981, pp. 1–14.
[4] For Muromachi and Momoyama examples, see Tokyo National Museum 1989b, no. 40; Murase 1990, no.11; and Suntory Museum of Art 1997, pls. 4, 5, and 13.
[5] Yamane Yūzō et al. 1994, pl. 31.
[6] Watt and Ford 1991, pp. 334–35.
[7] Plutschow 1973, p. 100.
[8] McKelway 1997, p. 51.
[9] See, for example, the pair of screens depicting cherry-blossom viewing and falconry attributed to Unkoku Tōgan (1547–1618) and now in the MOA Museum of Art, Atami; Murase 1990, p. 129.
Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation , New York (until 2015; donated to MMA)
Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from The Burke Collection.," October 25, 1993–January 2, 1994.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art. "Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from The Burke Collection.," February 26, 1994–April 24, 1994.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from The Burke Collection.," October 14, 1994–January 1, 1995.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Seasonal Pleasures in Japanese Art, Part II," May 1, 1996–September 8, 1996.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Japanese Art from The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," March 30, 2000–June 25, 2000.

New York. Asia Society. "Golden Fantasies: Japanese Screens from New York Collections," January 13, 2004–June 27, 2004.

Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum. "Nihon sankei ten: Matsushima, Amanohashidate, Itsukushima," August 2, 2005–September 4, 2005.

Museum of Kyoto. "Nihon sankei ten: Matsushima, Amanohashidate, Itsukushima," September 13, 2005–October 16, 2005.

Tagajo. Tohoku History Museum. "Nihon sankei ten: Matsushima, Amanohashidate, Itsukushima," October 25, 2005–November 27, 2005.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Celebrating the Arts of Japan: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection," October 20, 2015–January 22, 2017.

Murase, Miyeko. Masterpieces of Japanese Screen Painting: The American Collections. New York: George Braziller, 1990, cat. no. 22.

Murase, Miyeko. Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art from the Burke Collection. Exh. cat. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Art, 1993, cat. no. 50.

Murase, Miyeko. Bridge of Dreams: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, cat. no. 140.

Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art, Kyoto Cultural Museum, and Tōhoku Historical Museum [Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art et al.]. Nihon Sankei ten: Matsushima, Amano hashidate, Itsukushima (The three great views of Japan—Matsushima, Amanohashidate, Itsukushima). Exh. cat., Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art, Kyoto Cultural Museum, and Tōhoku Historical Museum. Hiroshima: Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art, 2005, cat. no. 31.

Miyake Hidekazu. “Kinsei meisho zu byōbu no Yoshino to Itsukushima: Sono kumiawase to Toyotomi seiken to no kakawari ni tsuite” (Yoshino and Itsukushima in the early-modern folding screens of celebrated places—The relationship between the thematic combination of these places and the Toyotomi regime). Gakushūin Daigaku jinbungaku ronshū (Compilation of papers in the humanities from the faculty of Gakushūin University), 14. Tokyo: Gakushūin Daigaku, 2005, figs. 2, 6–8 (details), 11–13 (details), 15–16 (details).

Nihon sankei-ten: Matsushima, Amanohashidate, Itsukushima (Exhibition of Japan’s three scenic spots: Matsushima, Amanohashidate, and Itsukushima). Exh. cat. Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art, Museum of Kyoto, and Tōhoku History Museum, Miyagi. Hiroshima: Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art, 2005, pp. 66–67, pl. 31.

Suzuki Hiroyuki. Meisho fūzokuzu (Genre paintings of famous places). Nihon no bijutsu (Arts of Japan), 491. Tokyo: Shibundō, 2007, p. 68, fig. 72.

Miyake Hidekazu. "Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Blossom Viewing at Yoshino and the Cherry Blossom Viewing Screens". Shubi: A Quarterly Journal for the Arts of East Asia, vol. 11, Special Issue. Shubisha Publishing Co. (Spring 2014): pp. 52-67, fig. 27.

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