Enlarge Image

Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Three beauties
approx. 1789–1792
by Katsukawa Shunshō (Japanese, d. 1792)
Hanging scroll; ink, colors, and gold on silk.

Three women relax late at night in an intimate gathering by Katsukawa Shunshō, a master of nuanced compositional detail. Here, the standing courtesan's slumped posture, bare feet, and hastily covered sleeping costume suggest that she has already been to bed with a client. The painting's second, seated courtesan reads from a volume with evenly divided lines that suggest that it might be a songbook. The woman seated opposite is an accompanist (a geisha), who relaxes with a smoke with her samisen resting across her knees. Connoisseurs of female beauty would have appreciated the contrast between the seated prostitute's flashy "lantern locks" (tōrōbin) and bold attire, and the geisha's tightly swept-back hair and subdued, but chic clothing.

Patterning the standing courtesan's robe are spools of thread on a ground of thin horizontal stripes. Could the spools be a symbol of love? The popular puppet and Kabuki play Imoseyama onna teikin (Mount Imo and Mount Se: An Exemplary Tale of Womanly Virtue) contains a scene in which a man attaches a string to his lover's robe and follows her with his spool (odamaki) in an attempt to learn her identity.[1] Though the connection between painting and play is speculative, that this romantic theme could have made its way into the language of textile patterns and costume is not impossible. Its use by Shunshō would have appealed to the sensibilities of male patrons of the pleasure quarter, who liked to believe that their favorite courtesans were bound to them by love.

The refined style of the signature dates this painting to the last four years of Shunshō's life, when he had all but eschewed commercial work in favor of private commissions for well-born customers.

1. The scene occurs in act 4 of the Kabuki play, which was first performed in Osaka and Kyoto in 1771.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.