Courtesans of the Tamaya House screen painting

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Room 3: Women of the pleasure quarters: a Japanese painted screen 
29 August – 3 November 2013

Object details

Height: 1441 mm
Width: 3146 mm
Museum number: Asia JA JP ADD687 (1982,0701.02)

Gift of Dr and Mrs Michael Harari

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Courtesans of the Tamaya House, a screen painting, attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu

Japan, Edo period
Late AD 1770s or early 1780s

Daily ritual in the pleasure quarter

This rare six-fold screen can be firmly attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814) and is one of the most important surviving Ukiyo-e paintings of its period. A group of high-ranking courtesans are seated on the red carpet in the centre, surrounded by their apprentices (shinzo) arranged in pairs with matching kimonos around the walls.

The women are in the harimise, the latticed display room of a brothel in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, where they would sit waiting for clients. It appears to be the quiet middle period of the day, and the courtesans are amusing themselves in various ways - smoking, playing the shamisen, dressing a doll. One of the teenage apprentices has dozed off.

Among the lacquered accessories depicted in the front, to the right of the smoking set, is a small box decorated with the emblem of a flying crane. According to Keisei Kei, a printed guide to courtesans published by Santo Kyoden in 1788, this was a crest used by Komurasaki, a high-ranking courtesan in the house run by Tamaya Sansaburo. The name of the house appears, albeit playfully half-hidden, on the entrance curtain towards the centre back.

The painting can be dated on the basis of its style and the fashions portrayed to the late 1770s or early 1780s.

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L. Smith, V. Harris and T. Clark, Japanese art: masterpieces in the British Museum(London, The British Museum Press, 1990)

T. Clark, Ukiyo-e paintings in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)

I. Hirayama and T. Kobayashi (eds.), Hizo Nihon bijutsu taikan, vol. 1 (Tokyo, Kodansha, 1992)


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