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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Peony, from the handscroll Secret Games in the Spring Palace (Shungu higi)
approx. 1775-1780
by Katsukawa Shunsho (Japanese, d. 1792)
Handscroll section mounted as hanging scroll; ink, colors, and gold on silk.

A young couple leans together in an intimate embrace in this scene from a handscroll of twelve rare erotic paintings by Katsukawa Shunshō. The boy, wearing a black robe with ginkgo leaves and green striped trousers (hakama), still has the lock of hair at his forehead that will be shaved off when he comes of age. A design of gourd vines on trellises spills over the girl's hem and sleeves, and her obi of chic ikat (kasuri) is patterned with flying birds. Inserted into a bamboo-stem vase next to the couple is a single peony blossom, a motif with sexual overtones that complements the youth and physical beauty of the couple. A tangle of limbs and a glimpse of the girl's white calf repeat the erotic refrain.

The twelve paintings were originally mounted together in a large-format handscroll, which was cut up and sold in sections during the twentieth century. This panel is one of four introductory scenes, none explicitly sexual, which Shunshō completed in the late 1770s. The poet Baba Zongi (1703–1782) wrote a preface for the scroll in which he gives his age as seventy-eight, or around 1780. Scholars believe that the artist painted the eight additional scenes, all but one frank depictions of sex, in the early 1780s. A large-scale, luxury production of this sort likely was destined for a member of the artist's elite samurai clientele. Scholar Naitō Masato theorizes that Baba Zongi facilitated the commission of the scroll by Shunshō for the Tokugawa family of Kii Province.[1]

1. Naitō, Ukiyoe saihakken, 206–207; summarized by Clark, "Katsukawa Shunshō," 106–107.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.