Harvard Art Museum sign

The first object in Robert and Betsy Feinberg’s collection of Japanese art was not a fine silk painting or a hand-carved wood fan; it was a $2 poster print of a screen painting of an early Portuguese ship arriving in Japan in the 16th century. They found it in a gift shop on a visit to the Met in 1972, in New York City. But it led the couple to a passion for Edo and Meiji era art, and on that foundation, they built an incredible collection. Robert, heir to his father’s industrial paint firm, and Betsy, a former teacher retired early to travel and increase their collection.

In 2013, the couple donated more than 300 of their acquired works to the Harvard Art Museum, where Robert earned his chemistry PhD back in 1965. It is considered the “largest and most significant” donation ever given to the museum, according to the Harvard Gazette.

Since February 13th, one hundred and twenty selected works from that donation have been on exhibition, completely occupying all four of HAM’s temporary exhibit galleries. The collection includes paintings on silk, paper, and wood, as well as wood-block printed books, painted fans, and other works.

“They have collected so carefully and with such dedication over the years that they have formed a comprehensive collection. It really allows us to look at the whole gamut of Edo painting, which is incredibly diverse,” said Rachel Saunders, a curator of Asian art at HAM and one of the curators of the new show. “It’s a comprehensive history of Japanese art through objects.”

The exhibitions have been organized into categories by the subject of the art, not its manufacture; nature, common life (particularly the “floating life,” the fishing villages that are remarkably prevalent in Edo-era art), and fantasy.

The show is meant to lead up to and overlap with the Summer 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. They may wind up being postponed due to the current concerns about COVID-19, but New Englanders can still come to see ‘Painting Edo’ and get their taste of Japan’s cultural history.