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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Courtesan Hanaogi of the Ōgiya brothel
by Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, 1754–1806)
Fan painting; ink, colors, and gold on silk.

One of the most renowned courtesans of her day, Hanaōgi worked for the exclusive Ōgiya brothel. She was the fourth woman to assume that illustrious name, which means "flower fan." This painted fan—an appropriate format, given the name—shows her in a private moment, about to pluck the strings of a koto. Rather than being oiled into the upswept coiffure worn by courtesans when meeting their clients, Hanaōgi's hair spills freely over her shoulders and back. Kobayashi Tadashi and Julie Nelson Davis have written that Hanaōgi's hair is down because it has just had its monthly washing. Taking a practical view, Melinda Takeuchi points out that it is unlikely that women would have exposed expensive robes like the one pictured here to wet or oily hair—and that the painting implicitly compares her to a court lady, whose hair was traditionally worn in similar fashion.[1]

Dressed for the boudoir, Hanaōgi wears a robe that is tie-dyed red with a hemp-leaf pattern and secured by a brilliant green silk sash (shigoki obi). Keeping her warm are two supple outer layers, one with orchids on a blue ground, the other with delicate, sudsy waves on brown. A glimpse of flesh between Hanaōgi's parted knees adds an erotic frisson to the portrait.

Utamaro was among the most celebrated and prolific artists of his highly talented generation. He pictured Hanaōgi in many woodblock prints designed for the general public, but the expensive materials used here suggest a special commission—likely from one of Hanaōgi's patrons. Stylistic evidence suggests a date of around 1794 to 1795.

1. Kobayashi, "Kitagawa Utamaro hitsu yūjo hikigotozu ōgimen," 2; see also Davis, "Tsutaya Jūzaburō: Master Publisher," 131–132. Melinda Takeuchi, personal communication, March 2014; see also her essay in this catalogue.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.