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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Reading by lantern light
approx. 1776–1786
by Tsukioka Settei (Japanese, 1726–1786)
Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk.

Paving stones, a stone lantern, and carefully manicured trees, one bound with cloth after pruning, tell us that this courtesan may be standing in a wealthy client's garden. Gazing over one shoulder, she chars the tips of a lacquered hairpin (kanzashi) in the lantern's flame. She appears to have used this improvised writing device to inscribe a note on a wad of tissue paper (hanagami)—the paper carried by courtesans for personal hygiene. Her surreptitious backward glance suggests that she is afraid of being caught out in some kind of intrigue; perhaps she intends to pass her letter to an unseen attendant, who will deliver it to her lover. Witty yet suspenseful, the scene's charm is enhanced by the woman's fashionable attire: a chic patchwork robe, with wide bands of elegantly patterned fabric, a gold brocaded green obi, and hairstyle with exaggerated, stiff "lantern locks" (tōrōbin) spread like wings over both ears.

Unlike most of the painters of Edo beauties, Tsukioka Settei worked in Osaka, not Edo. Refined and imaginative paintings like this one appear to have pleased clients even among Kyoto's aristocratic elite.[1]

1. Trede with Meech, Arts of Japan, 176.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.