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Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan

More than 1,000 images encompassing 1,200 years of Japanese book art, including Buddhist sutras, painted manuscripts, portraits, landscapes, calligraphic verse, and photographic books, with related drawings and woodblock prints.

Collection Contents  |  Related Subjects

Kitagawa Utamaro, 1753?-1806. Shiohi no tsuto = Gifts of the ebb tide = The shell book. (1789) Digital ID: 1504492. Kitagawa Utamaro, 1753?-1806. Shiohi no tsuto [Gifts of the ebb tide; commonly known in English as The shell book] (Second edition, 1789). Digital ID: 1504492.

Collection History

The Spencer Collection at The New York Public Library, which concentrates on illustrated books of all periods and regions, is home to some 300 manuscripts and 1,500 printed books from Japan; the manuscripts range from the 12th to the 20th century, and the printed works from the year 770 to the present. Their careful gathering has been the work of three curators of that collection.

The late Karl Kup was assiduous in acquiring manuscripts and printed books in the years just before and just after World War II. His carefully cultivated friendships with scholarly Japanese booksellers, including the greatest of these, the late Shigeo Sorimachi, enabled the Library to acquire manuscripts that constitute national treasures. In the mid-1970s, the late Joseph T. Rankin acquired en bloc Charles H. Mitchell's collection of some 750 printed books.

The acquisition of most of the twentieth-century printed books and a few scrolls is in large part the work of Robert Rainwater, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Librarian of Art, Prints and Photographs, and Curator of the Spencer Collection, who retired in 2005. Working with booksellers in Japan and Europe, and with private collectors in the United States, he built up the printed components of the collection, so that the Spencer Collection now constitutes a major repository for the Japanese book arts, in quantity as well as in quality.

Additionally, there is a notable collection of Japanese prints in the Print Collection of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. Developed from the 1901 founding gift by Charles Stewart Smith of 1,763 prints of the ukiyo-e school, its holdings now comprise some 2,000 prints, representing Japanese printmaking up to the present, as well as nearly 100 printed books.

Background

Among the most beautiful and moving books ever created, ehon - or "picture books," in Japanese; "e" = picture; "hon" = book - are one of the true glories of Japanese art but are little known today, even in Japan, because of their great rarity. This digital presentation offers a glimpse of the wonderful variety of ehon, their breathtaking exuberance, sophisticated artistry, sensuality, unparalleled originality, intellectual gravity, playful spirit, and lightness of touch.

Ehon are part of an incomparable 1,230-year-old Japanese tradition. Created by artists and craftsmen, most ehon also feature essays, poems, or other texts written in beautiful, distinctive calligraphy. They are by nature collaborations: visual artists, calligraphers, writers, and designers join forces with papermakers, binders, block cutters, and printers. The books they create are strikingly beautiful, highly charged microcosms of deep feeling, sharp intensity, and extraordinary intelligence.

The earliest ehon were made as religious offerings or talismans, but the great flowering of ehon began in the early modern period (1600-1868) and has continued, with new media and new styles and subjects, to the present. Shiohi no tsuto (Gifts of the Ebb Tide, 1789; commonly referred to in English as The Shell Book) by Kitagawa Utamaro, one of the supreme achievements of the ehon tradition, is reproduced in full in this digital presentation. Michimori (ca. 1604), a luxuriously produced libretto for a Nō play, is also featured, as are Saito Saitō Shūho's cheerful Kishi enpu (Mr. Ginger's Book of Love, 1803), Kamisaka Sekka's brilliant Momoyogusa (Flowers of a Hundred Worlds, 1910), and many more.

The magnificent ehon tradition originated in Japan and developed there under very specific conditions, but like any living tradition it has long since burst its bounds (some of the best modern ehon have been made by artists who are not Japanese by birth). As this digital presentation makes manifest, when artists meet readers in these contrived, protected, focused, sacred book "worlds," the possibilities for pleasure, insight, and inspiration are limitless.

Related Resources

Keyes, Roger S. Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan (2006) describes in detail 70 of the ehon in The New York Public Library's collection (many of which are included in this digital presentation). Published on the occasion of a major exhibition of the same title presented at the Library, October 20, 2006 - February 4, 2007, the book is available online from The Library Shop.

General Works

Brown, Yu-ying. Japanese Book Illustration (1988)

Hillier, Jack. The Art of the Japanese Book. 2 vols. (1987)

Kornicki, Peter. The Book in Japan: A Cultural History from the Beginnings to the Nineteenth Century (1998)

Materials, Structure, and Techniques of Ehon

Barrett, Timothy. Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, Tools and Techniques (1983)

Ikegami, Kōjirō. Japanese Bookbinding: Instructions from a Master Craftsman. Trans. Barbara B. Stephan (1986)

Salter, Rebecca. Japanese Woodblock Printing (2002)

Facsimiles

Naganobu, Kano. Momotarō and the Island of Ogres. A Japanese folktale, retold, with a postscript, by Stephanie Wada (2005)

Onishi, Hiroshi. On a Riverboat Journey: A Handscroll by Itō Jakuchū with Poems by Daiten (1989)

Pekarik, Andrew J. The Thirty-six Immortal Women Poets: A Poetry Album with Illustrations by Chōbunsai Eishi (1991)

Smith, Henry. Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji (1988)

Stevenson, John. Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (2001)

Other Exhibition and Library Catalogues

Books as Art: From Taisyo Period Book Design to Contemporary Art Objects (2001)

Mitchell, C. H., and Osamu Ueda. The Illustrated Books of the Nanga, Maruyama, Shijo and Other Related Schools of Japan: A Biobibliography (1972)

Murase, Miyeko. Tales of Japan: Scrolls and Prints from The New York Public Library (1986) (catalogue of an exhibition held in 1986 at The New York Public Library)

Sorimachi, Shigeo. Catalogue of Japanese Illustrated Books and Manuscripts in the Spencer Collection of The New York Public Library (1978)

Toda, Kenji. Descriptive Catalogue of Japanese and Chinese Illustrated Books in the Ryerson Library of the Art Institute of Chicago (1931; reprinted 2005)

Library Division(s)

NYPL Digital Gallery provides free and open access to over 800,000 images digitized from primary sources and printed rarities in the vast collections of The New York Public Library, including drawings, illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints and photographs, illustrated books, printed ephemera, and more.