As the primary patrons of the arts in premodern Japan, aristocrats—both the imperial court nobility and the military elite—significantly shaped their country’s art history. A wealth of fine materials that were used in daily life give a sense of the noble class’s lifestyle. Showcased in this gallery are paintings that illustrate the aristocrats’ activities, ceramics commissioned by feudal lords for personal use or as gifts, and masterfully produced metalwork crafted with lavish materials and exquisite decorations.
Prince Shotoku, for example, is often credited with founding Buddhism in Japan, which generated a great deal of Buddhist art. On view are statues of the prince and portraits of Shinto deities, the indigenous gods of Japan, which were sometimes portrayed as manifestations of Buddhist deities.
During the Heian period (794–1185), literature blossomed under aristocratic patronage. Poems and novels—notably The Tale of Genji, written by a court lady in the 11th century—provided ample inspiration for paintings and the decorative arts, as the screens, hanging scroll, and lacquer writing box here demonstrate.Image: The infant Shotoku Taishi in mantra-chanting form (namu butsu Shotoku Taishi), ca. 1300, Japanese, wood, lacquer, and polychrome, 26 7/8 x 11 1/8 x 11 1/8 in., Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, "Gift to a City: Masterworks From the Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection in the Seattle Art Museum," Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum, 1965, no. 116., 36.22