Yoshiwara pleasure quarters


  • Catalogue text

    In the pleasure quarters of the Yoshiwara district of Tokyo, the stringent codes of Edo period society were meant to be forgotten. In this painting, a client relaxes at a teahouse outside the gate, while others rush through to join the amusements within. One man enters through the gate covering his face with a fan and wearing a large basket hat to hide his identity. The man behind him seems much less concerned with discretion and bounds ahead after removing his sandals. Beyond the gate, women flirt with potential clients through latticed walls. One man with his head covered by his outer robe has been lured to the wall by the shamisen music emanating within. To the right, a woman is welcoming a client indoors and playfully gestures to remove his hat. On the street, the women are a bit more aggressive. One man is being pulled in two directions by a pair of sumptuously clothed courtesans. In the upper left, we see a view into the back room of a brothel where clients drink sake and play music in the company of the women. The season is late winter into early spring, evidenced by the blossoming plum and nanten berry branch in the vase.

    The style of their figures, their hairstyles and the patterns of their clothing point to a date in the late seventeenth century before the Genroku era (1688-1703). The lacquer box in the back room of the brothel on the shelf, for example, is decorated with a nami ni chidori (plovers and waves) motif, typical of the era. Many elements of this painting have much in common with the work of Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694), famous for his depictions of the Yoshiwara. When comparing Moronobu’s Hokurō oyobi engeki zu (Illustrations of the Northern Quarter [Yoshiwara] and Kabuki Theatres) [this is published in Chiba-shi bijitsukan, Hishikawa Moronobu ten, Chiba-shi Bijitsukan kaikan goshūnen kinen (Chiba: Chiba-shi bijutsukan, 2000), 50-51], we notice many similar characters. For example, the courtesan on parade with her assistants and the samurai entering through the gate followed by his footman with sandals in hand are sets of figures that the handscroll and the Ashmolean painting have in common. The figures in the Ashmolean scene also share the faces, gestures, and hairstyles of Moronobu’s figures to a large extent.

    Uncharacteristic of Moronobu, however, is the condensed nature of the scene shown in the Ashmolean’s painting. Here, the scene is so compact that we see the teahouses outside the gate and the activity within the pleasure quarters at the same time. Rarely does Moronobu show these two views, for he was known for his realistic depictions of the streets and layout of the Yoshiwara, and the teahouses and brothels were not this close to each other in actuality [the compact nature of the scene and its lack of accurate topography is noted by Ōkubo Jun’ichi in his entry on this painting in Hiryama Ikuo and Kobayashi Tadashi, eds, Daiei toshokan, Ashumorian bijutsukan, Vikutoria Arubaato hakubutsukan, Hizō nihon bijutsu taikan vol. 4 (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1994), 165-6]. The work in the Ashmolean is probably by a town painter versed in the Moronobu style, yet not a member of Moronobu’s immediate studio. Moronobu's illustrated books were plentiful, and a talented artist could use them as models to create his own Moronobu style that would no doubt be popular with his patrons. The absence of a signature here could mean that this is the work of a lesser known painter whose signature was cut off, or that the painting was never signed at all.

    This hanging scroll was purchased from S. Nomura in Kyoto in 1906 by Mr Christie-Miller as the work of artist Miyagawa Chōshun (1683-1753).

    In: Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003)

Glossary of terms


Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 52 on pp. 178-180, pp. 13 & 153, illus. pp. 150-151, 178-179, & 181

Reference URL

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