These colorfully painted and gilded screens illustrate The Tale of Genji, a novel written by Lady Murasaki in the early 11th century. They likely formed part of a bridal trousseau for the daughter of a very wealthy family. During the Edo period screens like this one were popular dowry items. They would be just one item in a trousseau that usually included as many as 400 objects as diverse as lacquered cosmetic boxes, paintings, musical instruments, furniture, books, and kimonos.
The Tale of Genji focuses on the romantic exploits and familial life of a prince in the Heian period (794–1185). The scenes illustrated on the screens are not in chronological order, but rather are organized by season.
The left screen’s first two panels depict summer, and the presentation of a newborn child to Prince Genji, who is reminded of an illegitimate child he fathered many years earlier. The left screen’s second (center) two panels depict autumn, and a celebration held in honor of Genji’s 40th birthday. Genji can be seen seated on a veranda in an embroidered burgundy robe. The left screen’s last two panels depict winter. Genji is in his late forties (though shown with the face of a young man) and sits with his wife watching ladies of the court play in the snow while reflecting on his past romances.
The right screen depicts spring, seen clearly in the blooming cherry blossoms. An ancient Japanese ball game called kemari is about to be played at Genji’s palace. One of the players catches a glimpse of Genji’s beautiful and young new wife when the curtain protecting her from view is accidentally pulled aside by a cat. This chance encounter would turn into a long love affair between the kemari player and Genji’s wife.