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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Beauty reading a letter
approx. 1783–1784
by Katsukawa Shunsho (Japanese, d. 1792)
Hanging scroll; ink, colors, silver, and gold on silk.

A statuesque beauty reads from a long paper scroll, so deeply absorbed that she doesn't notice she is stepping on her hem. The scroll, undoubtedly a message from a lover, spills from her hands in a flowing S-curve echoed in the cranes shown rising on her outer garment. Her slight dishabille reinforces the sense of intimacy with the subject, who is dressed as if she has just arisen from bed. A red sleeping robe (nemaki), open at the neck and below the knee, allows provocative glimpses of her chest and undergarments, and her blue outer robe (uchikake) glides seductively down her rounded shoulders in a sinuous line that echoes the trailing scroll. Slightly parted lips reveal teeth dyed black (ohaguro), a custom primarily followed by married women and courtesans.

An inscription on the painting states that the artist, Katsukawa Shunshō, was asked to do this painting in the style of an earlier master, Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671–1750). Although he protests that he is unable to match Sukenobu's skill, the end result attests to Shunshō's prodigious talent as well as to his debt to earlier prototypes.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.