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

Woman listening to a cuckoo
by Utagawa Toyohiro (Japanese, 1773–1828)
Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper

A slender beauty pauses on a balcony, round fan in one hand, as a cuckoo wings through the air. In classical court poetry the cuckoo is a harbinger of summer, its distinctive cry heard first in the fifth month of the year. Here the cuckoo appears with its beak open in song, amid what appears to be an early-morning mist. Wearing her nightclothes, the beauty is either on her way to bed or has just arisen. The warmth of the day is suggested by her fan, and by her unlined blue robe, decorated with delicate white orchid sprigs showered over the hem. This sheer fabric is layered over a plain white layer and loosely tied with a wide red sash tie-dyed with a pattern of small white circles.

The composition is spread over two upright sheets of ōban-sized paper, a format newly popular in the early nineteenth century. Toyohiro produced just a few such upright diptychs of beauties, two examples of which may be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston collection (one shows a woman boarding a roofed boat and the other a woman carrying a candle). The Grabhorn print has some horizontal creases, suggesting that it may once have been mounted as a hanging scroll, but it still preserves much of its original brilliant color. Laura W. Allen

Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection , 2005.100.103.

Image © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.