February 17–May 27, 2012

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Featuring works borrowed from the Yale University Art Gallery, Pursuing Beauty showcases the flourishing artistic traditions and innovations of Edo Japan (1615–1868) one of the most dynamic periods in the history of world art. Two centuries of political stability and commercial growth under the Tokugawa shoguns brought more people than ever before the luxury of leisure time. Increased attention to life’s fleeting pleasures and to the aesthetic beauty of the natural world and everyday objects was reflected in the elegant, refined art of this era.

It was a time of artistic experimentation, too, fueled partly by new ideas brought to Japan by the international trade with China and the West. In Kyoto, the traditional art center, artists from different schools reconfigured previous traditions and integrated new elements into their screens, scrolls, and lacquer wares. The development of urban culture and the rise of new social classes in the city of Edo (now Tokyo) stimulated new public interest in genre paintings, woodblock prints, and personal accessories and clothing. 

The works of art in this exhibition reflect both the diversity of artistic practices and the pursuit of beauty amid the transient pleasures of what came to be called the ukiyo or “the floating world,” where entertainment, recreation, fashion, enjoyment, and, above all, beauty provided an escape from mundane, everyday life.

Dr. Fan Zhang, Freeman/McPherson Post-doctoral Curatorial and Teaching Fellow, is the guest curator of Pursuing Beauty, as well as of the Museum’s previous Mellon Foundation project Transcending Boundaries: The Art and Legacy of Tang China (fall 2011). These two exhibitions of East Asian art are organized by Smith College Museum of Art in conjunction with the Yale University Art Gallery Collection-Sharing Initiative. This innovative project, in which SCMA is one of six college museums invited to participate, is supported by generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Additional funding for Pursuing Beauty is provided in part by The Brown Foundation, Inc.

Image Caption: Attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu. (1735–1814). Courtesan and Attendant (detail), Late 18th–early 19th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Olsen, Mr. and Mrs. Laurens Hammond, and Mr. and Mrs. Knight Woolley, B.A. 1917.