The Tale of Genji from Princesses to Pop

Restored Screen

At the center of this exhibition is Bryn Mawr’s newly restored, six-fold screen painting, which depicts a central moment from the Japanese literary classic when the “shining prince” first sees his beloved Lady Murasaki. This vibrant screen is the work of Kano Seisen'in Osanobu (1796–1846), one of the last great masters of Japan’s oldest school of painting. For its debut the screen is accompanied by selections from the College’s collection of Japanese art and artifacts as an invitation into the rich world of “Genji.” 

In 2015 and 2016, Bryn Mawr’s Department of Special Collections received substantial grants from The Sumitomo Foundation to restore fully the remarkable work at the center of this exhibition. The Sumitomo Foundation provides grants in support of the preservation of significant works of Japanese culture housed in foreign collections.

Bryn Mawr’s screen is significant for several reasons. Only a few works by this artist of a similar scale and execution still exist in the world, and this one was produced at the height of the Kano master’s career, when he was awarded the honorary court titles of hogen and hoin. This work was likely commissioned as part of a princess’s dowry, its ties to the Shogunal family indicated by the Tokugawa family crest (hollyhock mon) lining the exterior edges of the frame.

For Helen Burwell Chapin (Class of 1914, AB 1915), a noteworthy western scholar of East Asian art and the donor of Bryn Mawr’s Osanobu screen, The Tale of Genji must have been a compelling bridge into Japan’s aesthetics and past. 

Osanobu’s screen depicts a scene from the fifth chapter of The Tale of Genji, in which Genji sees Murasaki, his future wife, for the first time. Genji, who is also known as “the shining prince,” is shown at the center of six golden panels, dressed in white and standing under a cherry tree in full bloom. Alongside a male companion, he seems to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding deep green hills and nearby cascading waterfall. Concealed by flowering boughs, Genji covertly observes a charming group of lavishly dressed women in an expansive interior. On the balcony of this courtly home, a beautiful young girl peers into the landscape as she mourns the flight of her pet sparrow, which can be seen by following Murasaki’s gaze across the folds of the screen.

The high angular perspective of the composition and the unobstructed “fukinuki yatai” view of the interior provide us with a privileged vantage point from which to admire the scene. Osanobu’s use of thick black ink and fine detail in his rendering of Murasaki’s features helps to establish her as the focal point of the screen’s imagery. As the viewer’s eye is drawn through the composition by the striking gold-leaf and brilliant pigments, the viewer’s gaze, like Genji’s, circles back to appreciate the beauty of the young Murasaki and the privileged view of this intimate scene. 

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