Priceless Pattern


Sackler Gallery Succeeds with Dizzyingly Creative’Edo Masters’

There is no overarching rhyme or reason in the assemblage of the satisfying exhibition “Patterned Feathers, Piercing Eyes: Edo Masters from the Price Collection,” now at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Instead of organizing by artists or schools, or in chronological order, the curators arranged these Japanese paintings from the Edo period in a rather random fashion to allow viewers to gravitate to what’s most personally compelling.

The strategy works. I spent what seemed like a few minutes wandering around the expansive galleries only to look at my watch and realize that nearly 90 minutes had already elapsed. More than 100 Edo masterworks from the Etsuko and Joe Price Collection—amassed over the past five decades and considered one of the finest private collections of Japanese art in the world—are on display here.

The Edo period (1615-1868) is described by the museum as a time when “Japan had purposefully cut itself off from extensive contact with the rest of the world.” It’s also widely considered the beginning of the modern era in Japan.

Intricate elegance reigns here. Although the nature of the art—and its medium—varies, many of the images are demure, soft on the eye, and ultimately calming.

“Summer Landscape,” a pair of hanging scrolls by Kanryo, is emblematic of the overall exhibition’s focus on nature and the artists’ skill at recreating the elements without becoming overwrought in their efforts. The first scroll employs dappled blue watercolors to create sweeping movement in a tree’s lush foliage. A man is rendered with just a few simple brushstrokes as he guides a small skiff across a gentle current.

“Old Pine and Birds” by Kano Motonobu reinforces the notion that for the Japanese, nature represented a declaration that all is right with the cosmos. Singing birds—even 600 years ago—soothed the soul and suggested balance and harmony.

The soft, serene images of “Summer Landscape” and “Old Pine and Birds” contrast mightily with Nagasawa Rosetsu’s fierce, feline “Tiger”—one of various depictions here of the enigmatic big cat. His eyes glowing green, the menacing cat appears ready to leap off the paper and pounce onto the viewer. The tiger’s black stripes ripple across its back, while the sensational girth at its shoulders suggests that the Japanese artist wasn’t fully aware of an actual tiger’s scale.

Likewise, 18th-century Kyoto painter Ito Jakuchu delivers a number of haunting animal renditions, from a vicious-looking rooster ready to do battle, to elegant cranes tilting their long necks, to ducks nestled peacefully among snow-covered reeds.

“Dancers,” by Suzuki Kiitsu, meanwhile, could be billed as an intricate, graceful invitation to a party. The five figures at first seem to form a whirling dervish, but the S-shaped lines of their garments also suggest a more controlled movement.

One of the most exciting and ambitious pieces in the exhibition is “The Legend of Ogre Shutendoji,” which takes the viewer on a wild ride with a group of warriors who track down an evil ogre. Along the way, fighting, feasting and scheming figure into the agenda before the ogre’s head is ultimately severed from his body.

“Patterned Feathers” smartly alters the lighting in various parts of the exhibition to replicate the viewing experience intended by the artists hundreds of years ago. The divergent light schemes showcase the talent required to create visual art that can withstand scrutiny in a variety of light conditions.

Because of the sheer size of some of the works and meticulous conservation requirements, the exhibition’s curators decided to rotate the works continuously. The most significant rotations occurred in mid-January, so those who viewed the exhibition early in its run and enjoyed it might consider a return trip to the Sackler Gallery.

Patterned Feathers, Piercing Eyes: Edo Masters from the Price Collection through April 13 Arthur M. Sackler Gallery 1050 Independence Ave., SW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.