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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Courtesan promenading under cherry blossoms
approx. 1815–1819
by Katsushika Hokuun (Japanese, active approx. 1800–1844)
Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk.

A courtesan of the highest class (oiran) parades through the Yoshiwara beneath a cherry tree at its seasonal peak. A pale ink wash darkens the air around her, indicating that it is evening. Half-hidden by her side, a child attendant (kamuro) laughs up at the brilliant white blossoms, but the courtesan herself seems intent on showcasing her own flamboyant beauty— indeed, the flowers can hardly compete for attention with this showy, strutting celebrity. Her face is fashionably slender, with elegant, shapely brows, her hair oiled into a towering double-looped style stuck with oversized combs and hairpins. A flamboyant outer robe arranged over four silk layers is decorated with a bold, rhythmic pattern of paulownia leaves and folding fans. By association, the fans convey the meaning of good fortune (suehiro means "folding fan," suehirogari means "spreading prosperity"), suggesting that she is at the height of her powers. Projecting before her is an enormous swath of fabric—a fronttied obi patterned with rolled bamboo blinds. Green and white tassels attached to her clothes sway rhythmically as she lifts her left foot in an exaggerated circular motion (known as hachimonji, the Chinese character for "eight"), a choreographed walk involving eight lifted and turned steps designed to attract the attention of passersby.

Hokuun was a pupil of Katsushika Hokusai, whose painting of the courtesan Eguchi and a Buddhist monk appears in this catalogue (see cat. no. 16). Timothy Clark has observed that Hokuun likely based the Weber beauty on a Hokusai painting dating to between 1815 and 1819 in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution (see figure).[1]

1. Trede with Meech, Arts of Japan, 190.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.