A scene from The Pillow Book, depicting Sei Shōnagon unrolling a blind


  • Catalogue text

    Sei Shōnagon gazes out onto a wintry landscape dressed in the many-layered kimono of a court lady. The shutters have been propped up, and she unrolls a sudare blind to expose the view across the veranda, out to the pine tree in the garden, and to the distant snow-covered peaks beyond.

    This is a scene from the Makura no sōshi (Pillow Book), a diary written by lady-in-waiting Sei Shōnagon in the late tenth century describing her time at court. During a gathering of the empress and several of her ladies, the empress asks Shōnagon ‘How is the snow on Xiang-lu peak’, referring to a famous poem by the Chinese Tang period poet Bo Juyi [this is episode 278, ‘One day, when the snow lay thick on the ground’, translated in Ivan Morris, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), 243]. Quick-witted Shōnagon cleverly understands the empress’ meaning and has the shutter raised so that she may roll up the blind and look out, as the poem states was done by Bo Juyi.

    Indeed, the artist has drawn Shōnagon with an expression of utter calm and confidence, appropriate considering her contemporaries thought her to be brilliant, yet quite smug [Ibid., xiii]. Every element of the painting is delicately rendered from Shōnagon’s face to her graceful hands that prop up the bowing sudare in the centre. The colours the artist uses are light and washy, especially the red of the under-kimono which is almost transparent. This contrasts with the thick mineral pigments of the courtly tradition popular in the preceding centuries. The architectural elements are rendered with the thinnest of brushes in straight, sure lines. The decorative pattern of her kimono is done in gold and white paint, and the thin lines of the sudare are painted right over her figure. A bit of snow piled up in the corners of the shutters as well as dots of white pigment mimicking snowflakes throughout the painting are subtle details. The right edge of the image where the fan would have been attached to the broadest stick is covered with silver foil, appropriate for a winter scene.

    Itaya Hironaga was a follower (and brother) of Sumiyoshi Hiroyuki, official painter to the Tokugawa shoguns. The Sumiyoshi, an Edo branch of the Tosa school [for an explanation of how the Sumiyoshi derive from the Tosa school, see John M. Rosenfield, ‘Japanese studio practice: The Tosa family and the Imperial Painting Office in the seventeenth century’, in The. Artist’s Workshop. Studies in the History of Art, no. 38, ed. Peter Lukehart (Washington, DC: Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, 1993), 79-102], were painters of traditional courtly subjects often in intimate formats such as handscrolls and albums, who served the shogunate from the mid-seventeenth century on. Hironaga used the gō (artist’s name) of Keii later in life, so this fan is thought to be from his later career.

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

Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 46 on pp. 164-165, p. 152, illus. pp. 164-165

Reference URL

q-seffron-icon q-white-icon pluse-seffron-icon pluse-white-icon minus-seffron-icon minus-white-icon close-seffron-icon close-white-icon close-black-icon prv-gry-arrow prv-arrow print-seffron-icon print-black-icon next-arrow next-gry-arrow next-white-arrow up-arrow-black up-arrow black-up-arrow black-down-arrow white-up-arrow white-down-arrow hr-list-gry-icon hr-list-white-icon vr-list-gry-icon vr-list-white-icon eye-icon zoomin-icon zoomout-icon fullview-icon contact-black-icon contact-seffron-icon basket-seffron-icon basket-black-icon share-black-icon share-seffron-icon go-arrow search-white-icon