The Yoshiwara - Utamaro as the Painter of Women - Famous Figure-painters of Ukiyoye.

THE majority of designs in figure-studies, either full-length or head and shoulders, are portraits of the inmates of the licensed quarter of Yedo, called the Yoshiwara, a name also applied to the similar districts of other large towns, such as Kyoto and Osaka.

The gorgeous apparel and elaborate coiffure adopted by the beauty of the green-houses appealed strongly to the colour-print artist in search of material for his brushes.

Apart from such purely artistic reasons, there was also a personal motive to account for the popularity of the courtesan. To understand the cause of this, we must first put behind us all preconceived ideas as to what the term courtesan usually implies.

The late Lord Redesdale, in his Tales, says, in a foot-note on the courtesans of Yedo, that, in his opinion, in no country is the public courtesan more looked down upon than in Japan. Doubtless contact with the outer world, and all that such conveys, did not tend to improve matters in this particular respect, but such can hardly have been the attitude adopted towards the courtesan in the days when Japan was a hermit empire.

Considering that all the great masters of Ukiyoye lavished their highest skill upon her portrayal, she must have been a very different person from the moralless creature of the streets of our cities.

She was, on the contrary, a woman who had received the highest education, spoke a peculiar, old-fashioned language, and was remarkable for her intellectual refinement.

There were, of course, varying degrees of courtesans, and, as a rule, it is only those of the highest class, called oirans, that are represented in prints.

Neither was her position in society considered degrading; in many instances it was due to filial piety, a daughter selling herself for a term of years to a keeper of a tea-house in the Yoshiwara to rescue her parents from the consequences of debt. On the expiration of the term on attaining the age of twenty-seven, she was still considered a virtuous and marriageable woman. Her state, indeed, was not unlike that of a princess. Each oiran had two young girls attendant on her, called kamuro, who, on reaching a certain age, were themselves promoted to the rank of their mistress. These kamuro were children bought by the yoro-ya keepers, at the age of five or six years, for the purposes of prostitution, and during their novitiate were employed to wait upon the fashionable oiran like female pages. Like the oiran they were generally sold to the Yoshiwara to relieve the poverty of their parents, or they were unfortunate orphans whose unfeeling relatives would thus dispose of, rather than be at the expense of maintaining them. Sometimes an oiran is represented with one or more attendants, in addition to her kamuro; these elder attendants were in the nature of maids-of-honour, called shinzo, and ranked next to an oiran.

The dress of all courtesans, particularly of the oiran, was of a splendour wholly different from the costume of the ordinary woman, and their coiffure also was of a very elaborate nature, which was built up upon a light frame and kept in position by a regular forest of light metal or wooden pins, which framed the head like the halo of a saint in a stained-glass window.

They were further distinguished by wearing the sash (obi) tied in front, whereas all other women, including geisha (dancing and singing girls), tied them with the bow behind. It is often in the decoration of the obi that we find the most elaborate and brilliant designs, even in a costume which is gorgeous throughout.

The Yoshiwara, euphemistically termed Flower District, the name given to the courtesan quarter of Yedo, and afterwards applied to the similar districts of Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki, and other towns, was founded in 1612 by Shoji Jinyemon, and was so called from its being built on the site of a rush-moor (Yoshiwara). The name is also said to have been derived from the town Yoshiwara, because the majority of the women in the Yedo Yoshiwara were supposed to have come from that place, but the derivation from the site of its location is generally considered the more correct of the two. Previous to the year 1612, courtesans were scattered throughout the city of Yedo in different quarters, according to the town from which they came. This arrangement being distasteful to the reforming mind of Shoji Jinyemon, he petitioned the Government in 1612 that all courtesans should be made to live in one Flower District, which petition was granted five years later.

After a great fire in 1657 it was moved to its present site on the north side of the city, not far from the great Asakusa Temple, and enclosed by a wall. Entrance to it was gained by a single great gate, which gave access to the main thoroughfare in which the tea-houses (or green-houses as they were called) were situated. The fronts of these green-houses were barred like cages on the street level, and behind these bars sat the gorgeously arrayed oirans.

Prints show also the interiors of these houses. Thus, in an unusually large size, oblong print, [1] 12¾ in. by 18¼ in., by Kiyonaga, is depicted the interior of the House of the Clove, showing the inmates entertaining their guests and others walking about, and behind, on one side, a small army of cooks and servants preparing the viands.

Again, in a triptych by Toyokuni, [2] we are shown the upper floor of the same house, the foreground filled with courtesans and their kamuro, and in the centre one with her guest.

The geisha, however, fulfils a totally different role in Japanese society. Since actresses were forbidden on the stage, the geisha was called upon to take her place as an entertainer, and no banquet would be considered complete without her.

Japanese wives were not expected to have accomplishments, such as dancing and singing, so if the husband desired this form of entertainment for himself and his guests he would send to an establishment and hire geisha to come and perform at his house. A geisha was trained to dance or sing from the age of seven, and retired from the profession while still young, when, if not married, she would keep a school for the training of others.

Apart from being able to dance, sing, and play, the well-trained geisha was expected to know all the latest jokes and stories, to be quick at repartee, and an accomplished conversationist.

Her dress was as beautiful as that of the courtesan, but she wore her obi tied behind, while her head was not adorned with the enormous hair-pins of the latter.


While courtesans and geisha were generally painted for the sake of their portraits (though not, of course, in the strict sense of portraiture as under-stood in European art), we also find them represented engaged in all sorts of occupations, such as in practice are only carried on by artisans and peasants; in processions of nobles, with their retinue of samurai; as warriors or poets, and in comparison with beautiful scenery.

Again, the portraits of tea-house beauties are often nothing more than fashion plates, and the most celebrated series of this nature is that to which both Kiyonaga and Koriusai contributed, entitled First Dyed Designs for Spring Grasses. Examples from this set, both by Kiyonaga and Koriusai, are reproduced at Plate 3 1, page 186.

A print from a similar series of fashion plates by Yeizan is here illustrated at Plate 33, entitled Present Day Patterns of Dyes, and shows a geisha accompanied by her maid holding an umbrella over her in a heavy shower, the rain indicated by gauffrage on a wash background.


Of the many artists who devoted their brushes to the portraiture of women, it is, perhaps, Utamaro who has gained the highest reputation in this branch of design, and become noted as the painter of women.

His type is purely his own, and quite unlike that of any other artist, but it was closely followed by his numerous pupils and imitators, while that of Kiyonaga and Shuncho, the two other great artists in feminine portraiture, may be termed the classic type of beauty.

Yeishi, the fourth great figure-artist, combined the gracefulness of Utamaro at his best with the more natural style of Kiyonaga.

A short acquaintance with examples by Utamaro is sufficient to enable the collector to quickly recognize his work from amongst that of other figure-artists, quite apart from the signature on them, so marked is his individuality.

Mr. A. D. Ficke,[3] in the following well-chosen words, thus sums up Utamaro's characteristic type: Her strange and languid beauty, the drooping lines of her robes, her unnatural slenderness and willowiness, are the emanations of Utamaro's feverish mind; as her creator he ranks as the most brilliant, the most sophisticated, and the most poetical designer of his time. His life was spent in alternation between his workshop and the haunts of the Yoshiwara, whose beautiful inhabitants he immortalized in prints that are the ultimate expression of the mortal body's longing for a more than mortal perfection of happiness. Wearied of every common pleasure, he created these visions in whose disembodied, morbid loveliness his over-wrought desires found consolation.

In similar language Von Seidlitz says of him: Utamaro has glorified the Japanese woman with an enthusiasm unexcelled in any other age or nation. It is true that he consecrated his worship to a class of woman that stands outside the pale of society and, in spite of the splendour that surrounds her, is one of the most unfortunate of all creatures; but he did not depict her as she appears in reality, but formed of her an ideal of nobility and loveliness that stamps her as a goddess.

It would require a whole chapter almost to give merely the titles of the innumerable series designed by Utamaro in which courtesans, geisha, or ladies are portrayed, though now many are represented only by one or two prints.

We have referred to the representation of women engaged in various occupations. Utamaro's most famous series of prints of this nature is his set of twelve sheets, intended as illustrations to a hook, showing Women's Work in the Cultivation of Silk-worms.

A reproduction, in colours, of the second sheet of this set is given in Seidlitz's History of Japanese Colour-Prints, at page 126, from a copy in the British Museum. Descriptive sub-titles are given on all the sheets except the first two and the last two, written on conventional clouds; the set can be put together complete as one picture of twelve sheets, which are numbered, or they may be kept separate. (See Note, Appendix II.)

Another well-known large print by Utamaro, in seven sheets, represents the procession of the Corean Ambassador parodied by geisha wearing peaked hats, on the day of the Niwaka Festival, a subject parodied by other artists in the same way, and also with children in place of geisha.

Yet another well-known, but very rare, print, entitled The Chief Product of Yedo: making Brocade Pictures, or rather series of prints, complete in two triptychs, shows women engaged in making colour-prints, cutting the block, preparing the paper, taking prints, etc., another instance of the representation of women at occupations in practice followed by men. One print of this series, showing one woman at a low bench with a chisel and mallet cutting out the superfluous wood between the outlines of a design, another at a second bench engraving the block from the artist's drawing, while a third is sharpening a knife on a stone, is illustrated at Plate LXXVII in the Victoria and Albert Museum Handbook. This print has been closely imitated by Kunisada, over the name of Toyokuni, in a single triptych which may be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum. (See Note, Appendix II.)

Representations of theatrical characters, the six famous poets, the seven gods of good fortune, historical events, legends, and so forth, all furnished themes for the portraiture of Yoshiwara beauties and geisha.

Perhaps the most graceful series of figure-studies by Utamaro is that entitled Seiro Ju-ni-toki, Twelve Hours of the Tea-Houses, the title written on a Japanese clock, represented by figures, full-length or seated, beguiled by light occupations.

To give an idea of the estimation in which this series is held, apart from its rarity, it is known that the sum of £275 was asked for a complete set several years ago, while to-day probably well over £300 would be suggested.

Owing to Utamaro's widespread popularity as a designer of portraits and figure-studies of women, he was extensively copied by contemporary artists, even to the point of forging his signature, so that he was obliged in some prints to add the word shomei (the real) before his signature. One series of portraits with this addition to his name is a set in which the name of the tea-house beauty is given in a rebus, or picture-puzzle.

Plate 30, Illustration 1, is from a print in this series, a portrait of Kisegawa of Matsuba-ya. In a circle in the top right-hand corner is the rebus giving her name: A tobacco pipe (Kise-ru, shortened into Kise); below the pipe a representation of a stream or river (gawa); at the top of the circle, pine-needles (Matsu), and below them an arrow (ya, also means a house). Therefore we have Kise-gawa of the House of the Pine. Over one edge of the circle, in a frame, is the title Gonin Bijin Aikyo Kisoi, A Competition of Five Lovely Women. Publisher, OMI-YA. Below Utamaro's signature is a red seal, Honke, meaning the main house.

Other prints of this series which have come under observation are: Sakura-matsu of Choji-ya reading a scroll of poems; the rebus in the top left-hand corner reads: Cherry-blossom flower = Sakura ; pine twig = matsu; coiffure in form of a butterfly = Choji; an arrow = ya, also means house.

Matsu-yama of Wan-ya, looking to the left, holding a pipe; the rebus in top left-hand corner reads: Pine = Matsu; hills (in top of circle) = yama; a cup or bowl = Wan; arrow = ya (also house).

Another series with the signature Shomei Utamaro is one entitled Seiro Nana Komachi, Tea-house (Beauties) as the Seven Komachi. This series is considered one of the earliest by Utamaro in the form of large head studies, of which the following have come under observation: Kisegawa of Matsuba-ya; Akashi of Tama-ya; and Hanamurasaki of Tama-ya. (See Note, Appendix II.)

Another series in which the name of the beauty is given in a rebus is a set entitled Komei Bijin Rok'kasen, Celebrated Beauties as the Six (Famous) Poetesses; signed simply Utamaro.

A series in which Utamaro also uses an unusual signature is one entitled Fujin Ninso Ten Physiognomies of Women, and is signed Somi Utamaro ko gwa, carefully drawn by Utamaro the Physiognomist. (See Note, Appendix II.)

In the comparison of beautiful women with scenery, Von Seidlitz mentions a series by Utamaro in which the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido are represented by women, half-length figures, each station being indicated in a small circular landscape in the upper right-hand corner. This was a theme followed by other artists, particularly by Yeizan and Yeisen.

To turn to the other great masters of Ukiyoye who devoted their brushes to the portraiture of feminine beauty, Harunobu is of great importance in that he was the first artist to introduce the true multi-coloured print, and also the first to popularize this form of subject, though he sought his figures in the domestic scene rather than from the haunts of the Yoshiwara.

His prints, which are of small size, lack the stately magnificence of the imposing figures of Kiyonaga or Shuncho; they are, nevertheless, prints of great beauty and charm, and his style influenced all his contemporaries and created a furore by their novelty.

At Plate 31 is reproduced a fine full-size print by Koriusai from a famous series of fashion plates, to which Kiyonaga and Shunzan also contributed, entitled Hinagata Wakana no Hatsumoyo, New Designs for Spring Grasses (i.e. Dresses), in which famous Yoshiwara beauties are arrayed in the latest spring creations. Publisher Yeijudo.

In the contributions by Koriusai one drawing is made to do duty for two plates, with the name of the beauty altered. One represents Tomioka of Ogiya (House of the Fan) leaving the house on parade with two kamuro and an attendant carrying a large lantern on which is the house sign; the other is Meizan of Choji-ya (House of the Clove). In this plate the series title is omitted from the top right-hand corner as is also the name of the beauty, that of Meizan being put instead on the blind of the house behind her, while the house sign on the lantern is also changed.

This series is rare, and Shunzan's contributions to it particularly so. (See Note, Appendix II.)


It is in KIYONAGA and his immediate contemporaries that we find the portraiture of women raised to its highest level; the period of Ukiyoye, in fact, which marks the culmination of its art. It is this period, too, which saw the production of the magnificent triptychs and five-sheet prints of Kiyonaga, Shuncho, Shunzan, Yeishi, and Yeisho.

Probably Kiyonaga's finest and most famous masterpiece is his triptych of Yoshitsune serenading Joruri-hime, showing him playing his flute out-side the gate (left panel), and one of Joruri's attendants holding up a lantern to see who the visitor might be, Joruri herself listening inside (right panel), and two other ladies-in-waiting listening at a half-open window (centre panel). A copy of this triptych described as in flawless condition, as published, realized $1700 (say £350) at the Ficke sale (New York, February, 1920).

Another very rare and famous print by Kiyonaga, in flawless condition, also fetched a very large sum ($1375) at the same sale. This was his print (full size, upright) showing two girls walking, hand in hand, along the bank of the Sumida River at dusk, turning to look at another woman following behind, carrying a fan in her right hand. Grey sky suggesting nightfall. This print forms the right-hand sheet of a diptych, or two-sheet print, the left-hand sheet showing two women standing by a low bench, on which a third is seated. The complete diptych is illustrated at page 126 in the B.M. Catalogue.

A third famous print by Kiyonaga is that of which we reproduce an exceptionally fine copy at Plate 31, and to which we referred in Chapter II (illustrated in colours in R. Koechlin's Kiyonaga, Buncho, Sharaku (Plate XII) (Paris, 1911), and also in monochrome at page 116 in the B.M. Catalogue).

It is apparently one sheet of a triptych (possibly a diptych), with the title (in seal characters) Fuzoku Adzuma no Nishiki, Fashionable Eastern Brocades (i.e. Yedo Fashions), and represents the two sisters Murasame and Matsukaze (the subjects of a No drama) carrying salt water in buckets from yokes.

Murasame (Little Shower) and Matsukaze (Wind in the Pines) were two country girls who became the lovers of Ariwara no Yukihira, a nobleman exiled to the small fishing village of Suma. Their daily task was to fetch water from the sea for the making of salt.

Another important print from this series, which contains many of Kiyonaga's masterpieces, is one showing a girl dressed in a black robe walking to the left, accompanied by a boy with shaven pate, and two women, one of them, who talks to her, wearing a black hood. (Illustrated in the Ficke Sale Catalogue, No. 232.) (See Note, Appendix II.)


SHUNCHO, though originally a pupil of Shunsho, a designer of actor-prints, became the most notable disciple of Kiyonaga, following his style with extraordinary closeness.

Shuncho's prints are notable for the extreme delicacy of their drawing, their gently flowing lines, and the subdued, but perfect, harmonies of his colours.

In historical importance Shuncho is second only to Kiyonaga; in absolute beauty he is at least his equal; in the estimation of some he is the greater of the two.

Shuncho's prints are very rare, but they are always printed with the utmost sharpness and refinement; well-preserved copies are even rarer than work by Kiyonaga.

Perhaps Shuncho's most beautiful set of figure-studies is his series of Five Festivals, consisting of five superb prints of Yoshiwara beauties on parade, in costumes emblematic of the Festivals; in the top corner a small circle with an emblem of the fete.

For richness of colour and perfection of harmony these prints are equalled by few and surpassed by none, while the goddesses who majestic-ally move across the scene are like creatures from another world.

Shuncho leads us into a secret heaven where the loveliest and most flower-like of the gods have remained behind. . . . No women in the whole range of Japanese art so haunt one's memory as do his. . . . (A. D. Ficke.)

The following are the prints comprised in the above series:-

I. THE FIRST DAY OF THE FIRST MONTH (Shogatsu). Nanakoshi of Ogiya walking to the left, with a kamuro on either side, one on her left carrying a large battledore, followed by two shinzo; in circle New Year decoration of pine and bamboo.

2. THE THIRD DAY OF THE THIRD MONTH (Hina Matsuri; the Girls' Doll Festival.) Makinoto of Choji-ya passing to the right, with two kamuro on one side and her shinzo on the other, and another companion following. In circle two dolls.

(A copy of this print is in the British Museum, but is wrongly described in catalogue as being part of a triptych; perhaps an error for pentaptych.)

3. THE FIFTH DAY OF THE FIFTH MONTH (Tango; the Boys' Festival). Seyama of Matsubaya passing to the right, followed by two little kamuro, behind them her shinzo, to whom Seyama turns her head to address. In circle two flags.

4. THE SEVENTH DAY OF THE SEVENTH MONTH (Tanabata; the Weavers' Festival). Shizuka of Tama-ya holding her paper handkerchiefs up to her chin, followed by two kamuro and two shinzo, one of whom carries a fan. In circle branch of bamboo hung with small coloured paper streamers and flags. (See Plate D, page 42, for reproduction in colours.)

5. THE NINTH DAY OF THE NINTH MONTH (Choyo; Chrysanthemum Festival). Katano of Ogiya walking to the right followed by two kamuro, and behind them two shinzo, one of whom holds her sleeve up to her mouth. In circle chrysanthemum flowers.


Another fine set of figure-studies, emblematic of the five festivals, is a series by Utamaro entitled MUTUAL LOVE AS THE FIVE FESTIVALS, full size, upright; publisher Wakasa-ya. Each print shows a pair of lovers in various occupations connected with each festival.

1. Shogatsu. A man and a woman beside a kadomatsu (the New Year pine and bamboo decoration), she trying to recover a shuttle-cock which he has hit up into its branches.

2. Hina Matsuri. A young man presenting a girl with a doll playing the tsuzumi, in a box, and she clapping her hands with delight.

3. Tango. A youth painting a huge kite with a figure of Shoki, the demon-queller, and a girl watching him.

4. Tanabata. A girl seated at a table writing poems and other inscriptions on the pieces of coloured paper which are hung up on bamboo branches on the Weavers' Festival, and her lover standing behind her reading one of them.

5. Choyo. A young man standing behind a girl, and holding a vase of chrysanthemums, while she rolls up rice-cakes between the palms of her hands, which she packs into a box alongside her.


Next to Shuncho, the chief exponent of the classic type of beauty in figure-studies is YEISHI, followed by his pupils YEISHO, YEISUI, YEIRI, and GOKYO.

Yeishi is particularly noted for his extremely fine pentaptychs and triptychs; one of the most famous of the latter is his Treasure Ship, showing nine noble ladies afloat in a barge the prow of which is shaped like the mythical ho-ho kind. They are engaged in the refined entertainments of painting or composing poetry; in the centre, behind two of the figures, is a tray on which are several picture rolls tied up in a bundle.

This triptych should not be confused with another very similar one (a copy of which is in the B.M.) showing seven women in a large barge, as the Seven Gods of Good Fortune in their treasure ship (the takarabune), playing various instruments.

Other famous triptychs by Yeishi are those which form a series called Furyu Yatsushi Genji, or Popular Stories of Prince Genji, which illustrate in popular form scenes from the well-known tenth-century romance of Prince Genji, the figures being in the costumes of Yeishi's time. The treatment of the subject is also changed to suit the period. (See Plate 63.)

Thus, in the triptych which illustrates the reconciliation of Prince Genji with a nobleman from whom he had become estranged, instead of the latter, a princess is shown attended by an umbrella bearer and two ladies-in-waiting, preceded by another woman who offers him a branch of wistaria as a peace-offering.

At Plate 2, Illustration 1, is reproduced the centre sheet of a triptych composed of five full-length figure-studies by Yeishi; subject, Floating Cherry-blossoms down a Stream on Paper Boats. The right-hand sheet shows a Court lady seated, facing to the left; the left-hand sheet another standing holding a Corean hat in her left hand, and a fan in her right, each lady with attendants. The background is a very pale yellow wash, and poems written on a dark green cloud above.

Of Yeishi's pupils, YEISHO (see Plate 32), who followed his teacher's style very closely, is the most important; he produced full-length figures, large bust-portraits, pillar-prints, and triptychs.

Other pupils are YEIRI, YEISUI, YEISHIN, and GOKYO. The two last-named are extremely rare indeed; there are probably less than a dozen prints between them in existence. Yeisui is also very rare.

Gokyo is notable for the soft and subdued colour-scheme he employed; greys, browns, and low-toned greens, in conjunction with deep black. A fine example by him (unsigned) is illustrated at Plate 2. Only three other prints (one a diptych) by him, each signed Yeishi's pupil, Gokyo, are known to the writer. An example by Yeishin is illustrated in colours at Plate C, page 32 and also one by Yeisui at Plate D, page 42 both in fine state.


Further artists in the Kiyonaga manner are SHUNZAN and Kubo SHUN-MAN; of the latter it may be said that his full-size sheets are so rare as to be beyond the reach of the ordinary collector. His most famous series of full-size prints is his set of Six Tama Rivers; three sheets (from the Salting collection) are in the British Museum, and one of them (that for the Koya Tama River) is illustrated in the B.M. Catalogue at p. 144.

Shunman's smaller book-illustrations and his surimono, which are excellent and fairly numerous, are more readily procurable by the average collector.

Shunzan's prints are also rare, and amongst them are some beautiful triptychs; a fine example is illustrated at Plate 31, showing ladies catching fire-flies at nightfall. The right-hand sheet was illustrated in our first edition; here we are able to give the complete triptych.


No reference to figure-studies can omit mention of the two most beautiful picture-books of Ukiyoye, and therefore, one may add, in the world. One is by Kitao MASANOBU, a set of seven double-sheet prints from his most famous work entitled Beautiful Women of the Yoshiwara and their Autographs, showing magnificently attired women with attendants dressing, reading, writing, promenading, and so forth.

The other is A Mirror of the Beauties of the Green-houses, by Shunsho and Shigemasa. Single sheets from these books are sometimes met with as separate prints.

Six out of the seven double-page sheets from Masanobu's book are in the B.M. His full-size, single sheet, prints are very rare. (See Frontispiece.)

Shunsho and Shigemasa also collaborated in another celebrated work illustrating the cultivation of silk-worms, in twelve sheets (each 9¾ x 7¼), each artist doing six plates, similar to Utamaro's famous set mentioned earlier in this chapter.

(For further notes on figure-study prints see Appendix II.)

[1] Anonymous sale, June, 1913.

[2] Satow sale, November, 1911.

[3] Chats on Japanese Prints. London, 1915.