FAMILY portraits even in the most distinguished society usually go back only a few hundred years. It is a rare family that can trace its ancestors back to medieval times in portraits worth hanging in a museum. That's the charm of "Noble Heritage: Five centuries of Portraits from the Hosokawa Family," an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery through Nov. 23.
The Japanese portraits date from 1391 to 1879, and the ancestors wear the formal black or brown robes that go unchanged from century to century, flaring out around them as they sit in ritualistic positions. Their hair is often bound up in styles as intricate as terraced gardens.
One of the few exceptions is a rare equestrian portrait of Hosokawa Sumimoto (1489-1520) riding a spirited horse that has the coloring of a Siamese cat. Sumimoto looks fierce, dressed for battle in his quilted armor, his long and short swords, and his halberd. "No period in Japanese history was as bloody and chaotic as the one in which Sumimoto lived," says professor Jared Lubarsky who wrote the catalog.
The Hosokawa family had been celebrated since the middle ages in terms of government and cultural leadership.
In feudal Japan, sovereignty was divided between the military government, or "shogunate," and the imperial court, ruled by an emperor. His court was the source of cultural and spiritual leadership. The shogun headed the warrior clans, controlling the lands in the emperor's name. And the "daimyo" were the aristocracy of warriors who governed the country for the shogun.
The Hosokawas, who began as samurai, rose into the daimyo class in the middle of the 14th century with the founding of the Ashikaga shogunate and increased their power over the next l00 years. Following the daimyo tradition, they combined great skill in war with talents for the peaceful arts, including poetry, painting, scholarship, and the important Japanese tea ceremony.
Hosokawa Yoriyuki (1328-1392), for instance, had his portrait painted with a Muse, an angelic spirit called a tenshi, who inspired one of his poems. When he resigned as deputy shogun he wrote a poem about it:
...The room is full of bluebottle flies
That won't be driven off.
It's time I left, sought a Zen temple
Caught a fresh breeze.
Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1645) led his troops in battle at the age of 16, but he was also a disciple of the man who raised the tea ceremony to its highest level. One of his tea bowls, made by the founder of the raku pottery technique, is in this exhibition.
The saddest-looking of the Hosokawa dynasty is Hosokawa Shigekata (1720-1785), who cared deeply about society, giving the country its first corrective, modern prison system, establishing hospitals in major cities, and founding Japan's first medical school.
The last family head to serve a shogun was Hosokawa Yoshikuni (1835-1876); the feudal system was replaced with a civilian government during his lifetime.
"Noble Heritage" focuses on the 16 portraits from family history (two of them are Hosokawa wives). It also includes a ceremonial sword with a hilt covered in white stingray skin; rare tea-ceremony objects, Noh masks, robes, and nature studies. The items were culled from the Hosokawa family collection in the Eisei-Bunko Foundation by Alan Fern, director of the gallery and Morisada Hosokawa, present head of the family.