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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Courtesan in her boudoir
approx. 1818–1825
by Utagawa Toyokuni (Japanese, 1769–1825)
Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk.

In this provocative painting, a half-dressed courtesan has just arisen from lovemaking. As she lifts her arms to adjust her lopsided hairdo, her milk-white breasts and limbs are exposed under disordered robes and sash. In her haste to get up, a few unruly sheets of tissue paper have escaped from a packet held between her teeth, scattering to the floor. Behind her a folding screen decorated with a dragonfly hovering above flowers indicates the private area where we presume her client rests after concluding their encounter. Alexander Hoffmann explains that the dragonfly symbolizes the Yoshiwara, because the insect habitually flies to the northeast, the direction in which men must travel to reach the pleasure quarter.[1]

Inscribed above this scene is an anonymous poem alluding to the reasons for her hair's messy state:

ause no makura
nemidaregami no
toko no yamakaze

Perhaps you can guess
what has just happened
during a tryst by the pillow!
Asleep, my hair was tangled
by a tempest in the bedroom.[2]

The painter, Utagawa Toyokuni, was the teacher of Kuniyoshi, whose painting and prints are included in this catalogue (cat. nos. 21–24). Toyokuni was a celebrated book illustrator and prolific designer of Kabuki actor portraits; this work is unusual in his oeuvre for its frank sexuality and naturalistic style.

1. Trede with Meech, Arts of Japan, 184.
2. Trans. John Carpenter. Ibid

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.