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The Printer's Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection

Picking tea in Uji
late 1780s
by Kubo Shunman (Japanese, 1757–1820)
Woodblock print, one of a set of three; ink and colors on paper

Writing in the 1960 catalogue of the Grabhorn Collection Landscape Prints of Old Japan, Jack Hillier commented, "Is it possible that tea-pickers wore such lovely clothes, or, more to the point, wore them with such grace? Of course, it is all a delightful pastoral make-believe, such as Melchior created in Dresden china, or Bustelli in Nymphenburg." Indeed, the costumes of the tea pickers on the left side of this triptych seem to the modern eye every bit as lovely as those worn by the two fashionable women at right, visitors to the famous tea-growing region of Uji. Though the workers are distinguished by their poses (hoisting tea or baskets of leaves) and costumes (aprons, tied-up sleeves, simple straw sandals), their up-to-date obi and hairstyles seem to playfully transpose the attributes of pleasure quarters style to the world of rural labor.

The setting for these figures comes from an illustration of the village of Uji in a 1780 guidebook, Pictures of Famous Places in the Capital (Miyako meisho zukai). The influence of Kitao Shigemasa and Torii Kiyonaga is also evident in the figures and composition of the tea-picking scene, which was published a year or two before Shunman's great masterpiece, the hexaptych "Six Jewel Rivers." Somewhat faded today, the limited palette of this rare triptych is characteristic of an experimental phase in printmaking during the 1780s. Laura W. Allen

Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection , 2005.100.82.c.

Image © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.