This pair of screens is an outstanding example of a new style of painting that had emerged towards 1600 as Japanese artists turned against the Chinese-inspired academism of the previous century and started to depict many-peopled subjects such as views of famous places or scenes in and around Kyoto. These new themes put an end to established artistic formulae, encouraging painters to develop a more personal and expressive style, with the emphasis not only on striking decorative arrangements but also on individual gestures and facial expressions.
While earlier 17th-century paintings of the Kamo race continued to stress the ritual origins of the event, later examples such as this focus on its competitive nature. In the right-hand half of the present Lot the composition runs from right to left as in all Japanese narrative painting, with the Kamo race track delineated by parallel fences. Two pairs of contestants from the two teams, one wearing green, the other red, race down the course, and at the right a member of the green team prepares for the off while his red competitor waits impatiently. In the background we see a party of watching courtiers, some of them sitting outdoors under the branches of a spreading pine tree, with two more courtiers seated on a veranda, and further to the left a kneeling monk with his back to the action. A horseman from the red team approaches one of the two grandees, probably in order to receive a prize of silk for winning the previous race. Beneath the discreet blinds that line the veranda we see the hems of kimonos, an indication that the ladies of the Imperial court were not permitted to show their interest publicly even though women of the townspeople class were often depicted in screens of related subjects. The left-hand screen shows three further pairs of contestants with more specators in the background, the leading pair close to the finishing line engaging in some distinctly unsportsmanlike activity, with one rider trying to slow his opponent down by grabbing his collar with one hand, apparently in full view of a watching group of umpires.
A single very long screen, sold in our New York rooms, 24 October 1991, Lot 847; Okada, J“ (Emily Sano trans.), Genre Screens from the Suntory Museum of Art (New York: Japan Society, 1978), cat. no. 14; Takeda Tsuneo et. al. (ed.), Nihon by“bu-e sh–sei 13: F–zokuga: Sairei, Kabuki [Survey of Japanese screens 13: Genre - Festivals, Kabuki] (Tokyo: K“dansha, 1978), plate 27/28, Kamo keibazu [picture of the Kamo horse-race]