The Art of Japanese Screens and Furnishings

Ref. 5656-5657

A pair of eight-fold paper screens painted in ink and colour on a gold ground with numerous horses in a mountainous river landscape amongst golden clouds. The right hand screen is set in summer with details such as a stallion taking a dust bath and a mare with her foal enjoying the warm waters of the river beside a waterfall. In the left-hand screen we move on to autumn which is accentuated by a single maple. This screen again shows many horses enjoying their environment with the main focus being a group of cavorting stallions at the centre.

Japan Edo period 18th century

Dimensions: h. 169 cm x w. 388 cm

Provenance: Purported to be from Hirosaki Castle

Hirosaki Castle was built in 1611 and was home to the Tsugaru clan of feudal lords for 260 years. High up on the northernmost tip of Honshu, the town is famous for its severe winters, delicious apples and Sakura (cherry blossom). The spectacular setting of the feudal castle, surrounded by more than 5000 blossoming cherry trees, makes it one of the most renowned sites in Japan for viewing cherry blossoms.

Archaeological remains indicate that horses entered Japan from the continent in the prehistoric period and were used initially for domestic purposes. Military use of the horse in Japan began centuries later, around 400 A.D., after Japanese foot soldiers had been defeated by mounted Korean warriors. There after, even in eras of peace, horsemanship was an important attribute of the court and military elite.

In Shinto it is believed that horses not only help control rainfall but also carry messages between the temporal and heavenly realms. In this regard, white horses were initially kept at the more important shrines, but when this became prohibitively expensive, large carvings often were substituted. For its part Buddhism regards the horse as a mount of such deities as Nichiten, God of the sun.

In the realm of folk art of a religious nature, the depiction of horses is common on painted votive plaques known as ema (picture horses). Some scholars believe that the placement of these plaques at shrines and temples began as a means of using a miniaturized horse, so to speak, to convey one’s prayers and petitions to the gods.