Recently, I wrote about how a work of portraiture and the stories to which it relates can inspire within us an empathic connection with the sitter and can help us to grapple with such universal struggles as social isolation. Within the history of the Heian period (794–1185), the golden age of Japan’s aristocratic culture, few women were more frequently immortalized in Japanese prints and paintings than Lady Murasaki Shikibu (late 10th century–early 11th century), author of The Tale of Genji (early 11th century). According to legend, Murasaki began to write The Tale of Genji on an autumn night in 1004 while seated alone on the balcony of Ishiyamadera Temple, from where she could admire the landscape in the light of a full moon. Could one imagine a lonelier yet more heartbreakingly beautiful scene?
Not unlike the actress Greta Garbo (1905–1990), to whom the quote “I want to be alone” is often (and inaccurately) attributed, Murasaki was depicted as both a literary intellectual and an alluring, solitary beauty: reading, producing works of calligraphy, and admiring the splendors of nature from the secluded vantage point of her drawing room. In this way, she has long been a reminder that the opportunity to pause, reflect upon one’s own life, find creative inspiration, and write down one’s own thoughts for the sake of future generations is well worth the degree of solitude it requires.
Although the “social distancing” that we are currently practicing is specifically intended to ameliorate the pandemic that we currently face, this portrait of Lady Murasaki as a recluse reminds us of a further benefit: the opportunity to clear our minds of distractions, to refresh our spirits through reading, to produce something beautiful, and, by sharing these experiences with our friends, to support one another.
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1650-1700
Fan painting; ink, color and gold on paper
Gift of John Gregg Allerton, 1984 (5264.1)