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Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji)
About mid-18th century
Color on paper
This hand scroll depicts the first sixteen
chapters of the Tale of Genji, a fifty-four chapter epic
novel written by Murasaki Shikubu (about 973-1030). The story
follows the life and loves of Prince Genji, the son of the emperor
and his favorite concubine, Kiritsubo. Although fictional, the
Tale of Genji is taken to be an accurate representation
of aristocratic life in the middle of the Heian period (794-1195).
The oldest surviving Tale of Genji hand
scrolls were painted in the late Heian period. Generations of
court appointed painters, mostly from the Tosa family, kept the
tradition of Tale of Genji painting alive. By the middle
of the Edo period (1600-1868) when this work was completed, most
literate people knew the narrative well. Artists continued to
produce Genji hand scrolls in the colorful and highly decorative
yamato-e style of the Heian-period originals.
Art historians often refer to Tale of
Genji hand scrolls as "monoscenic narratives."
A short section of text and an illustration represents each chapter
of the tale. Although variations appeared from time to time,
in general, the selection of text-image combinations was fairly
standard. The three sections displayed here are from the third,
fourth and fifth chapters.
|Chapter three is titled Utsusemi,
for the young woman with whom Prince Genji has fallen in love.
He is spying on her as she plays go with her companions. Later,
Genji will slip into her room, but Utsusemi will escape his advances
and Genji will make love to her companion instead.
|Yugao, the title of chapter
four and the name of the mysterious woman Genji pursues in this
chapter, means "evening face," the type of flower seen
growing over the fence in this scene. It was these flowers that
first attracted Genji to this residence and to the woman who
inhabits it. The scene depicts Genji's servant asking one of
Yugao's attendants about the flowers and the occupants of the
house. These flowers blossom only in the evening, much like Genji's
clandestine affair with Yugao. Because of his position at court
and his official marriage to the daughter of a high placed court
minister, Genji's relationship with Yugao is fraught with difficulty.
During one of their liaisons, the vengeful spirit of Lady Rokujô,
another of Genji's mistresses, possesses and kills Yugao.
This scene from the fifth chapter, titled
Waka Murasaki (Young Murasaki), depicts Genji's initial attraction
to Murasaki, who will eventually become his truest love. He watches
from behind a brushwood fence as she expresses her anger because
one of her companions has released her pet sparrow. At this time,
Murasaki is barely ten years old, but Genji finds her bright
and precocious character too endearing to resist. Later in the
story, he becomes her guardian and then takes her as his mistress
when she reaches adolescence. The flowering cherry trees indicate
that the scene takes place in spring, but they also symbolize
the blossoming of new love.
Hood Museum of Art, Gift of George Herman,
Class of 1941; P.993.48