Enlarge this image. Scenes from The Tale of Genji, one of a pair (1615–1868). Japan. Six panel folding screen; Ink, colors and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60D46+.
What is this painting about?
This pair of screens illustrates scenes from four chapters of Japan’s classic literary work, The Tale of Genji, written by a female courtier by the name of Murasaki Shikibu in around the tenth-eleventh centuries. It is a romantic novel that follows the relationships of a legendary Prince Genji and the generation following him. Divided into 54 chapters, the English translation by Edward Seidensticker takes up 1,090 pages. It is required reading in Japanese schools today.
The book is full of palace intrigue, but more important is the attention Murasaki paid to describing the beauty and emotions of the story, from the perfect kimono ensemble to the sprig of plum blossom attached to a bittersweet love letter. The Japanese have a term for this—mono no aware, a pathos for the fleeting moments of beauty, joy, even heartbreak that are part of being human. These emotions and actions are portrayed using subtle means in the pictures. For example, once we know that the figures on the boat are lovers stealing away together, the inclining of their heads towards each other takes on new significance. On the other hand, the scene in the lower left represents a woman trying to deflect unwanted advances.
The book was first illustrated in handscroll form, with sections of text interspersed with select images. It was painted in a consciously Japanese style called yamato-e. The text was written in Japanese—during Murasaki’s day, men generally studied and wrote poetry in Chinese, whereas women excelled in writing verse and prose using their native language and script called kana.

How does this 17th century screen relate to the 12th century handscrolls?

These screens were painted some 600 years after Murasaki wrote her novel, and some 400 years after the earliest surviving paintings of the subject. There are hundreds of Genji images in collections all over the world, in a variety of formats and styles, from handscrolls to writing boxes, and from refined courtly paintings to irreverent spoofs in woodblock prints. The subject was particularly popular during the Edo period, as part of a revival of courtly aesthetics particularly among courtiers and merchants in Kyoto. With increased literacy of the Edo populace, and woodblock renditions of the story available relatively cheaply, more people could read the book and were familiar with the standard images.

Chapter 30 Fujibakama (Purple Trousers)

The bottom half of this screen depicts one scene from Chapter 30, Purple Trousers, a playful name for a lavender flower that blooms in fall. Yugiri, the son of Genji, comes as a messenger to the home of Tamakazura, who is seated inside the building behind transparent curtains. One of her attendants is seated on the verandah. Due to a recent death in the court, all the characters are supposed to be in mourning, but that does not stop Yugiri from pursuing Tamakazura.
Perhaps thinking that there would be another occasion to let her know of his interest, he had come provided with a fine bouquet of “purple trousers.”
"We may find in these flowers a symbol of the bond between us."
He pushed them under her curtains and caught at her sleeve as she reached for them. Dew-drenched purple trousers: I grieve as you do. And long for the smallest hint that you understand. Was this his own hint that he hoped for a union at “journey’s end?” [this is a reference to a poem about marriage at the end of a journey] Not wanting to show her displeasure openly, she pretended she did not understand and withdrew a little deeper into the room. It grew, if you ask, in the dews of a distant moor. That purple is false which tells of anything nearer.
"I think this conversation will mark our nearest approach." 1
Reading between the lines, Tamakazura’s poetic reply indicates that she does not wish Yugiri to come any closer. Her feelings towards him are expressed in this indirect way, but he is sure to understand her meaning.

Chapter 51 Ukifune (A Boat upon the Water)

The upper part of this screen depicts two different scenes from Chapter 51, A Boat upon the Water. The scenes are cleverly divided by the Uji bridge, located south of Kyoto, which spans the river in the central panels. On the right, Kaoru (the young man) and Ukifune (the young woman, whose name is taken as the Chapter name) sit on a verandah gazing over the river.
The bridge is used as a metaphor by both characters, symbolizing loyalty on the one hand and uncertainty on the other. In the upper left, is a scene that takes place several days later. A different suitor, Niou, is with Ukifune, taking her by boat to a secret hideaway.
“See,” said Niou, “they are fragile pines, no more, but their green is so rich and deep that it lasts a thousand years. A thousand years may pass, it will not waver, This vow I make in the lee of the Islet of Oranges.”
What a very strange place to be thought the girl.
“The colors remain, here on the Islet of Oranges. But where go I, a boat upon the waters?”
The time was right, and so was the girl, and so was her poem: for him at least, things could not have been more pleasingly arranged. 1
Ukifune expresses a feeling of discomfort, but Niou is delighted that he has managed to steal away with his love. Later in the chapter, Ukifune in a terrible dilemma having to chose between two suitors, and being very restricted by codes of behavior, became so distraught that she eventually killed herself by throwing herself into the river.

1  Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.