The engaging clusters of ancient buildings draw us into the capital of Kyoto embraced by rolling hills and with golden clouds wafting from the mind of the artist to cordon off one area from another. The scene is delightfully peopled with vendors and shoppers on the city streets at the bottom, picnickers at Saihoji, enjoying the natural delights of the “Moss Temple,” workmen, vendors, visitors, and young fellows practicing swordsmanship at Toji in the center, while picnickers enjoy the natural sites at the “Moss Temple,” Saihōji, above. The carefully crafted, well-detailed and richly colored painting is a virtual tour through what are both hallowed grounds and popular sites, then and now.
During the early years of the 16th century, screens portraying scenes in and around Kyoto based on their geographical locations began to be subjects for Japanese painters. Their works were based on the earlier tradition of paintings of famous scenic places, monthly festivals, and genre scenes. Kyoto had been much damaged during the Ōnin War (1467-1477) and in the rebuilding had been transformed into a modern city in which the citizens took great pride. The screens of “Scenes In and Around Kyoto” portrayed the new city in detail as well as contemporaneous society, from the highborn and powerful to ordinary people, thus including much valuable historical material. In the evolution of such pictures, the portrayal of leisure activities and the work of craftsmen in their shops and studios increased. As topographies and guidebooks to the city of Kyoto became greater in number and experienced more popularity, these too influenced paintings with “Scenes In and Around Kyoto” as their subject.
The present painting, while very compelling as an independent work of art, was clearly designed for inclusion on a screen but mounted separately when others of the sequence were damaged or destroyed. Based on extent intact screens, it is clear that the present panel would have been at the far left of a six-fold screen and its composition and details following closely a standard depiction of a temple-rich stretch of the environs.
1. More than ten examples of this type of screen are known, including one in the Freer Gallery of Art. They are usually referred to as “Gukei type” since one of them, probably the prototype, is signed by Sumiyoshi Gukei (1631), a Tosa school painter who served the Tokugawa shogun.