Painted screen depicting two famous samurai racing each other

Race to See 1700s Screen & Other Rare Objects

Samurai is on View through June 5

As visitors race to experience the final days of the Denver Art Museum exhibition Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection, we highlight a piece from the show that features a race of another sort. The room-dividing, folding screen, or byōbu (shown above), features a famous scene from samurai history.

Racing into History

Two samurai, Sasaki Takatsuna and Kajiwara Kagesue, surge across the Uji River near Kyoto to be the first to engage their enemy, Kiso Yoshinaka, in 1184. This episode is from the conflict known as the Gempei War, when the Minamoto clan fought to establish control of Japan. Their struggle pitted them against the powerful rival Taira clan and, at times, against members of their own family. Their ultimate success would begin the period of samurai rule in Japan in 1185, an age that would last until 1868.

The race between the two generals in the painting is a classic example of samurai bravery, highlighting their belief that honor was more important than life, and that one’s legacy would be remembered and celebrated for generations. This turned out to be true for these two samurai for, although being the first to engage the enemy was a dangerous proposition, their fame endured. This scene has often been recounted in Japanese art through the centuries, in literature, paintings, and prints.

Painted in Peace

This screen was painted in the 1700s, perhaps as many as 550 years after the actual event, accurately depicting armor and weapons from the time of the battle. The screen was painted in a long period of peace called the Edo period (1615–1868) following the unification of Japan under the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Samurai in this period had largely ceased to fight in wars, and had instead become statesmen and bureaucrats. They practiced martial arts and recorded the philosophy of bushidō, “the way of the warrior,” as ways to preserve their martial role in society.

The painting might have been commissioned by a samurai recalling a time when brave deeds were still being done on the battlefield. Trying to associate himself with these two particularly famous samurai, he might have even been a descendant recounting the exploits of his ancestors to remind others of his place at the top of Japanese society.

Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection is organized by The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas. Local support is provided by the generous donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign and the citizens who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). Promotional support is provided by 5280 Magazine, CBS4, Comcast Spotlight, and The Denver Post.

Image credit: Folding Screen (Byōbu). Race to Be First at the Battle of Uji. Mid-Edo period, early 1700s. Ink, color, and gold on paper. © The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas

Douglas Wagner is the curatorial assistant in the Asian art department. He has worked in various departments at the Denver Art Museum since 1997 and for the Asian art department since 2006. He recommends that visitors don't miss the Walter + Mona Lutz Gallery, the only one in the United States devoted solely to bamboo art from China, Korea and Japan.

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