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Updated: 14 April 2015
screen / painting
Painting, six-panel screen. Courtesans of the Tamaya house in latticed display room, amusing themselves dressing a doll, folding a paper crane, smoking, dozing off and playing shamisen music; high-ranking courtesans, possibly including Komurasaki, grouped on red carpet in centre of room; apprentices paired in matching kimonos with long, hanging sleeves. Ink, colour and gold on paper.
- 1781-1785 (c.)
- Painted in: Japan
- Height: 144.1 centimetres
- Width: 314.6 centimetres
- Height: 172.3 centimetres (with mount)
- Width: 317.8 centimetres (with mount)
This rare six-panel 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-ranked courtesans are seated on the red carpet in the centre, surrounded by their apprentices (shinzo) arranged in pairs with matching kimonos. They are in the harimise, the latticed display room of a brothel in 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 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 written by Santo Kyoden in 1788, this was a crest used by Komurasaki, a high-ranked 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. The screen has recently been completely rebuilt and the paintings conserved in the Hirayama Studio at the British Museum with generous financial assistance from the Sumitomo Foundation. (Label copy, TTC 2001)Clark 1992
This grand screen shows the 'harimise', the latticed display room facing on to the street, of the Tamaya house of pleasure in the Yoshiwara quarter. The high-ranking courtesans are grouped on the red carpet in the centre of the room, while around the walls - paired in matching kimonos with long, hanging sleeves - are their apprentices ('shinzo'). This is probably the midday session from roughly noon to four o'clock, since business seems to be slack and the women amuse themselves dressing a doll, folding a paper crane, and smoking. One even dozes off, her head lolling forward while her neighbour prepares to liven up the mood with jaunty 'shamisen' music in the 'sugogaki' style.
Next to the smoking-set in front of the courtesan wearing a black surcoat ('uchikake') decorated with blue and red tassels is a small black lacquer box painted in gold with the emblem of a single crane flying with wings outstretched. Referring to the printed guide to courtesans of 1788 by Santo Kyoden, 'Keisei kei', we find that this was the 'alternate crest' ('kaemon') of Komurasaki, one of the highest-ranking women in the house run by Tamaya Sansaburo, confirming the name of the house which appears, half obscured by a gold cloud, on the entrance curtain.
Considered in terms of its theme and composition - a complex grouping of figures in the corner of a room surrounded by a certain number of accessories (even a dropped hairpin beneath the 'shamisen') - the screen clearly belongs to the sequence established by the illustrated book 'Seiro bijin awase sugata kagami' of 1776 by Shunsho and Shigemasa. It does not quite show the mania for detail of Kitao Masanobu's album 'Yoshiwara keisei shin bijin awase jihitsu kagami' of 1784, however, and this stylistic evidence points to a date of execution in the early 1780s. Though the screen is unsigned, the manner of drawing the faces and amplitude of the figure style require a firm attribution to Utagawa Toyoharu. Several large horizontal hanging scrolls by Toyoharu are known, but this is the only six-fold screen by him presently recorded. The large scale, the sense of rhythm and energy in the lines of the drapery and the variety of gestures portrayed make this one of the most important Ukiyo-e paintings to have survived from the period, giving a vivid sense of the glittering 'special world' of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter.
The face of the woman folding the paper crane has been patched and completely repainted at a later date.
Hillier, Jack, 'The Harari Collection of Japanese Paintings and Prints'. Vol. 1, London, Lund Humphries, 1970, no. 48.
Smith, Lawrence, 'Japanese Art: Masterpieces in the British Museum', with Victor Harris and Timothy Clark. London, British Museum Publications, 1990, no. 194.
Tokyo-to Bijutsukan (eds), 'Daiei Hakubutsukan hizo Edo bijutsu ten'. Exh. cat., 9 Aug.-24 Sept. 1990, no. 1.Smith et al 1990
Among the daily rituals in the life of courtesans of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter in Edo (Tokyo) were the hours spent seated, dressed in their gaudy finery in the display room ('harimise') facing on to the street where prospective clients passed by. This six-fold screen shows a total of thirteen courtesans seated in the display room, with its characteristic latticed windows, through which can be seen the entrance curtain ('noren') bearing the name of the establishment 'Tamaya' ('Jewel House'). The highest-ranking women are seated on the carpet in the centre of the room with a brazier and smoking-sets on the floor before them. The lower-ranking women, wearing matching kimonos in pairs, are seated around the walls - one making a folded-paper crane, another holding a 'shamisen', and a third even dozing off.
Large Ukiyo-e screens of this type are extremely rare, and no comparable works are known to have survived in Japan. Though unsigned, this example can be dated on the basis of the hairstyles to c. 1775-85, and the characteristic manner of drawing the faces suggests an attribution to Utagawa Toyoharu, one of the most prolific painters of beautiful women of the late eighteenth century. Though the facial features conform to an idealised stereotype, Toyoharu has animated the large composition with a lively variety of expressions, poses and gestures.
Hillier, Jack, 'The Harari Collection of Japanese Paintings and Drawings', 3 vols, London, 1970, no. 48.Hizo Nihon bijutsu taikan Vol 1
The small bell on the Shinto altar ('kamidana') is rung and one by one the courtesans descend the stairs from their rooms and apartments on the second floor of the house to sit in their allotted places in the 'harimise', the latticed display room facing onto one of the sidestreets of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. No lamps have been set, so this must be the midday session (roughly midday to four in the afternoon). Business is often slack during the midday session, and the women amuse themselves dressing a toy doll, folding a paper crane; one even dozes off, her lead lolling forward. The open lattice down one side of the passage from the street to the entrance curtain has bars that run all the way from floor to ceiling, indicating that this is one of the grandest of the Yoshiwara houses. Several of the women stare idly out of this window, watching for the arrival of prospective clients. Our view is practically that of a customer looking in through the bars of the cage from the street side.
In playfully discreet fashion, the name of the house on the entrance curtain is half obscured: obvious to someone of the time who knew Yoshiwara well; less easily deciphered today. Looking at 'Yoshiwara Saiken', the guide to the quarter published twice yearly, however, for the period in the late 1770s or early 1780s when the screen was painted, it is clear that the only name with characters of this configuration is Tamaya ("Jewel House"). But there are no less than four houses with the name Tamaya in Yoshiwara. We must look for further clues.
Seated in pride of place on the red carpet in the centre of the room are the five highest-ranking courtesans, wearing long surcoats over their kimono and provided with lacquered smoking sets to help while away the time. The key to a possible identification lies in the gold emblem of a single flying crane on the small black lacquer box next to the smoking set in front of the courtesan wearing the long surcoat decorated with fancy blue and red tassels. According to 'Koto, Shamisen', a 'sharebon' novel-'cum'-courtesan guide published in 1783, a single flying crane was the "personal" crest of the courtesan Komurasaki, one of the highest-ranking women in the house run by Tamaya Sansaburo, sometimes known as the Kadotamaya ("Tamaya on the corner"), the first house on the left as you turned into Edo-cho Itcho-me from Nakanocho. This is only a tentative identification, to which a number of objections could be raised: the single flying crane was possibly used by other courtesans in the Tamaya house (and certainly by other courtesans in other houses); the entrance curtain of the Kadotamaya as shown in 'Yoshiwara Saiken' bore a 'picture' of a flaming jewel, rather than the written character for jewel seen here.
According to the 'Yoshiwara Saiken' available to me, Komurasaki made her appearance at the Tamaya after the spring of 1778 and before the autumn of 1780, immediately numbering among the highest-ranking women in the house. In 1784 she is depicted in Kitao Masanobu's 'Yoshiwara Keisei Shin Bijin Awase Jihitsu Kagami' (the flying-crane emblem prominent on the shoulder of her kimono), and by 1788 has become the sole, most prominent representative of the house in Kyoden's (a.k.a. Masanobu's) 'Keisei Kei'. By this date, however, she ranks as 'yobidashi' and would presumably be invited by patrons to an assignation teahouse, rather than joining her sisters in the 'harimise'. All this suggests a date of execution for the screen sometime in the early 1780s, which accords well with stylistic considerations that will be discussed below.
The women seated around the edge of the room, wearing kimono with long, flowing sleeves in matching pairs - decorated with roundels of seasonal flowers, waterwheels, and waves - are apprentice courtesans. The one holding the shamisen has the special duty of creating a bright, jaunty atmosphere with a nonstop background music in the 'sugogaki' style. One of the high-ranking courtesans stokes the embers of a small, standing brazier, and this, together with the fact that the time of year is on or around the third day of the third month, the Doll's Festival, suggests that the season is still fairly cold. Shunsho and Shigemasa's 1776 book 'Seiro Bijin Awase Sugata Kagami' shows a similar combination of dolls and brazier in the illustration of courtesans of the Matsune house.
Though the painting is unsigned, the particular manner of depicting the faces and the overall amplitude of the figure style requires a firm attribution to Utagawa Toyoharu (1753-1814). Even his earliest paintings, from the beginning of the An'ei era (1772-81), show skill at arranging groups of figures in interior settings (for instance, the 'Hand Game at a Party' in the Itabashi Ward Museum); and later in his career Toyoharu broke new ground with outdoor panoramic views involving many figures (see examples in the Freer Gallery of Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Oita Kenritsu Geijutsu Kaikan). Nevertheless, no other screens of a similar type from the 1770s or 1780s appear to have survived, making it hard to guess whether or not this might have been the right-hand screen from a pair.
Seen in terms of the tradition of views of the interior of Yoshiwara houses, this screen bears strong compositional and thematic similarities to the previously mentioned 'Seiro Bijin Awase Sugata Kagami' of 1776 - complex grouping of multiple figures in the corner of a room, surrounded them with a certain number of accessories (even a dropped hairpin beneath the shamisen - but it has not quite yet reached the mania for detail of Masanobu's album 'Yoshiwara Keisei Shin Bijin Awase Jihitsu Kagami') of 1784.
In summary, the internal evidence of the courtesans depicted and the stylistic evidence point to a date of execution in the early 1780s. The large scale of the figures and the wonderful sense of animation of the poses and flowing lines of drapery make this one of Toyoharu's most satisfying works and certainly one of the most important ukiyo-e paintings to have survived from the An'ei and Tenmei eras.
In passing it should be mentioned that the face of the woman folding the paper crane has been patched and completely repainted at a later date.This rare six-panel folding screen can be firmly attributed to the artist Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814) and is one of the most important surviving ukiyo-e paintings of the period. It can be dated to the early 1780s on the basis of its style, and the women and fashions portrayed. A group of courtesans is seated on the red carpet in the centre of the room, surrounded by their teenage apprentices (shinzo-) arranged in pairs wearing matching robes with long, hanging sleeves (furisode). They are in the latticed display room, the harimise, of a brothel in Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, where they would sit on display to prospective clients. The view is practically that of a customer standing on a side street of the quarter where the brothels were situated, looking in through the latticed front of the building. Only the very highest-ranking courtesans would be spared this daily (and nightly) duty and invited out directly by a patron to party in one of the teahouses that lined the main central street, Naka-no-cho- (Clark et al 2013, cat. 128). Here it appears to be the quiet middle period of the day, and the courtesans are amusing themselves smoking, playing the shamisen and dressing a doll. One of the teenage apprentices has apparently dozed off. Among the lacquered accessories depicted at the front, to the right of the smoking set, is a small box decorated with the emblem of a crane with its wings outstretched. According to Keisei kei (Guide to Courtesans) of 1788, a printed guide to courtesans written by Santo- Kyo-den (1761–1816), this was a crest used by Komurasaki, a highranked courtesan in the Tamaya brothel owned by Tamaya Sansaburo- . The name of the house appears, playfully half-hidden, on the entrance curtain towards the centre back. Kado-Tamaya (‘Tamaya on the corner’) was the first brothel on the left as you turned into Edo-cho- Itcho-me from Naka-no-cho- . [TC]
2013, 29 Aug–3 Nov, BM Gallery 3, 'Women of the pleasure quarters:
a Japanese painted screen'
2001, 30 Jan-8 Apr, BM Japanese Galleries, 'Arts of Japan: Recently repaired paintings, Ukiyo-e IV'
2006 Oct 13-2007 Feb 11, BM Japanese Galleries, 'Japan from prehistory to the present'
2010 Jun-Oct, BM Japanese Galleries, ‘Japan from prehistory to the present’
2013 Nov-Jan 2014, BM Japanese Galleries, ‘Japan from prehistory to the present’
- Topographic representation of: Tamaya
- Jap.Ptg.Add.687 (Japanese Painting Additional Number)
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Object reference number: JCF9030
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