A courtesan seated on a small mat is poised to inscribe a poem on a decorated folding fan. The Chinese characters for pine, bamboo and plum (shochikubai), a trio of plants associated with the New Year, are embroidered and dyed on her sumptuous black outer robe.
haru no yamauba
Yomo Sanjin Magao sho
[By the poet] Shokaen
Since she brings with her
all the colors and songs
of every flower and bird,
in spring Yamauba's
pack must be ever so heavy.
Calligraphy by Yomo Sanjin Magao
The poem has been transcribed by Yomo no Utagaki Magao (1753-1829), a noted Edo poetry master and author of light fiction. He studied kyoka (31-syllable witty verse) under Shokusanjin (Ota Nanpo; 1749-1823), who had earlier in his career used the pen name Yomo Sanjin (Literatus of all directions). Though Magao incorporated the name Yomo into his pen name, and regularly used it for the rest of his career, he rarely styled himself Yomo Sanjin, as here. Perhaps he used this combination of pen names at the special request of the poet Shokaen (Garden of pines and flowers) who apparently asked his poetry teacher to inscribe one of his own poems on the painting by Eishi. Nothing is known about Shokaen, though a kyoka of his is found in the 1795 edition of the anthology Yomo no haru (Spring in all directions), which was compiled by Magao for the Yomogawa poetry group.
Magao writes in a rather elaborate, overly florid style. The last character of the inscription is hard to decipher, and depending on how one reads it, the last word of the poem can be read as yamauba (mountain hag), a reference to a character in the Noh play, or as yamahime (mountain princess).
Yamauba is the legendary old woman who cares for the mountains, decking them with snow in winter, blossoms in spring and moonlight in autumn. In her pack she carries seasonal foliage and birdsong, a much lighter load in winter than in spring. The name Yamauba literally means an old woman living in the mountains and connotes a creature on the periphery of society. In medieval Japanese literature she was sometimes portrayed as a white-haired, flesh-eating female demon. By the Edo period she was shown as a more nurturing figure, a beautiful woman who dotes on her son, Kintaro, a young boy with great strength. In the puppet play Komochi Yamauba by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Yamauba begins as a courtesan Yaegiri.
Magao's handwritten red seal is in the shape of a fan exclosing a triple comma (ogi tomoe). The same emblem appears as decoration on the courtesan's black lacquer writing box. It is probably no coincidence that this is also the emblem of a sake shop, the Yomoya [Kyubei], in Edo. In legend Yamauba is also associated with a sake vendor who flourished after her modest purchase from the shop. One might speculate that the shop owner commissioned the portrait of this beauty. Certainly the poet, painter, shopowner and courtesan would have been on intimate terms.
For another example of Magao's collaboration with the ukiyo-e artists Ikkei and Kuninaga, see lots 138 and 143.
This painting is a masterpiece by an artist noted for his elegant compositions.