Tale of Genji 17c Japanese painting. Chapter 51, Ukifune. Tosa school.



A Boat upon the Water (Ukifune), Illustration to Chapter 51 of the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari)

Tosa School (second half of the 17th Century)

Ink, pigment, gofun and gold on paper.

Unframed album leaf.


Approximately 17 cm x 15 cm (6.7” x 6”)


During the seventeenth century, Tosa School artists painted album leaves of Genji scenes in miniature. The viewer is rewarded on close inspection with the delicate facial features of the figures, the intricate patterns on drapery and clothing, and the careful depiction of various flowering trees and grasses. Viewed at a distance, the gold clouds and strong lines of the architecture in the different vignettes work together to form a unifying decorative pattern.

Presented here are individual album leaves from an incomplete set, each illustrating one chapter of the Tale of Genji. Exquisitely painted and beautifully preserved, they date to the second half of the 17th century. Roofs are entirely removed from houses to reveal small, doll-like figures within. Delicate flowers and plants suggest the seasons of the year. Surrounded by gilded clouds, these graceful paintings shimmer with uncommon beauty and delicacy.

One of the world’s greatest literary masterpieces and the finest achievement of classic Japanese prose narrative, The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu shortly after 1000 A.D., has provided endless inspiration for Japanese painters throughout the centuries. The Tale of Genji weaves a vivid depiction of aristocratic life in Heian Japan, which centres on the amorous exploits and political gameplay of the nobility.

In this illustration, Prince Niou visits Ukifune and carries her off to the Iset of Oranges. It is the most famous of all illustrations of the Tale of Genji, where as their boat approaches the shore, Niou admires the rich, long-lasting green of the pine trees. Ukifune responds with a poem; “The colours remain……….but where go I, a boat upon the waters?” Ukifune was being courted by both Kaoru and Niou, and had been secretly agonising over the situation; her dilemma becoming increasingly unbearable.