Lot Content

Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
KITAGAWA UTAMARO (1754-1806)
KITAGAWA UTAMARO (1754-1806)

Daimonjiya nai Tagasode, Tomeki, Kaoru (The courtesan Tagasode of the Daimonjiya; with the names of her girl attendants, Tomeki and Kaoru)

Details
KITAGAWA UTAMARO (1754-1806)
Daimonjiya nai Tagasode, Tomeki, Kaoru (The courtesan Tagasode of the Daimonjiya; with the names of her girl attendants, Tomeki and Kaoru)
Woodblock print, from the series Seiro nana Komachi (Seven Komachis of Yoshiwara), signed Utamaro hitsu and sealed Honke (true line), published by Sen-sa, circa 1794-95, yellow ground
Vertical oban: 14 5/8 x 10 1/8 in. (37.1 x 25.7 cm.)
Provenance
Hayashi Tadamasa (1853-1906)

Brought to you by

Takaaki Murakami
Takaaki Murakami

Lot Essay

By the time this print was released in the mid-1790s, Kitagawa Utamaro was flush enough with the success of several series of courtesan “portraits” to warn off imitators, adding the red seal “true line” (honke) to the images, as here; others in the set have both the “true line” seal and an added admonition “the genuine” (shomei) before his signature. The sensitive carving of the wood blocks––on show in the delicately combed hairline, lacquered hair strands and nape of the neck––the yellow background, and the crispness of the printing indicate this is an early impression of a set that exists in rare examples. Later editions have a replacement gray ground and no “true line” seal (Royal Ontario Museum, 926.18.366).
Utamaro has caught a famous beauty unawares. She is absorbed by something below and out of the frame––a letter from an admirer, perhaps, or the latest novelette. Smoking her pipe seems unconscious. The paparazzo effect is calculated, however, as there is no indication she or any of the beautiful women Utamaro drew ever sat for him. Like today’s glossed mannequins and influencers on the internet, her purpose is to advertise the possibility of pleasure: most obviously here, the exclusive Daimonjiya brothel in the Yoshiwara, where she works, her chic hairstyle and the pattern and color combo of her robes. It is not impossible that there is hidden product placement in the design that is lost on us. Another print by Kiyonaga of Tagasode smoking in bed includes the address of the Daimonjiya, as well as the names of her two girl attendants, also given here (MFA, Boston, 11.19413).
It is not yet clear how Tagasode relates in this image to the title of the set, “Seven Komachi of the Yoshiwara,” beyond the association of seven courtesans at the height of their allure and popularity to the beauty, fickleness and eventual fading in age and circumstance found in the legend of Ono no Komachi, a ninth-century poet. Next to nothing is known about Komachi’s real life, but the substance of her legend has endured for over a thousand years. The eighteen brilliant poems attributed to her speak for themselves. She is the only female member of the Six Immortals of Poetry (Rokkasen). In most other print series, there are one or more visual clues, a subtitle or a poem that points to one of seven Komachi episodes (nana Komachi), the subjects of matching Noh plays. At least some of Utamaro’s public could have made the connection. Highly sophisticated members of amateur poetry and culture clubs thrived on parodies of classical themes. Both Utamaro and Hokusai became well known by designing illustrated poetry albums and season-occasion prints commissioned by these groups. In turn, their entrées to the clubs brought more lucrative commissions for paintings. The Yoshiwara Circle attracted star writers, artists and the movers and shakers of the urban economy. The owner of the Daimonjiya brothel, Murata Ichibei (1754–1828), was the head of the Yoshiwara club. He composed under the pen name Pumpkin Stem, Kabocha no Motonari. Utamaro, who used the nickname Slip of the Brush, Fude no ayamaru, is shown at a party in the illustrated book The Meeting of the Yoshiwara Great Sophisticates (Yoshiwara daitsu-e) by Koikawa Harumachi, 1784. The courtesan Tagasode herself is known to have attended Yoshiwara Circle events, either as a guest or participant.
Lacking obvious allusions, might the autumnal connotation of the chrysanthemum flowers on Tagasode’s robe link her image to one of the Komachi episodes? Sekidera Komachi is set in that season. In the Noh play of the same name, Ono no Komachi appears as a hundred-year-old in a thatched hut. The Abbot of Sekidera Temple and two priests have approached her because they have heard she call tell them the secrets of poetry. “Long awaited,” they say, “autumn has come at last.” It is the seventh day of the seventh lunar month when everyone on earth is celebrating the one-night tryst of the Herd Boy Star and the Weaver Girl Star in the Milky Way.
“Even commoners like ourselves,” starts Komachi, “Take pleasure in composing poetry,” responds the Abbot. There follow exchanges of poems and poignant exclamations from Komachi of her vanished youth and resplendence. Whatever the metaphor Utamaro intended, Tagasode, despite her charms and talent, herself will peak and make way for a younger version of herself. Her name, Tagasode, is a homonym for a word that means “whose sleeves?” a trope very familiar in ukiyo-e with many extensions to courtesans and the scent of a lover’s sleeves. At the end of Sekidera, the chorus chants, “My dancing sleeves rise up, but sleeves cannot wave back the past.”
The smaller red seal in the lower left of the print was used by the great connoisseur/dealer Hayashi Tadamasa. His seal is an imprimatur of quality ukiyo-e. Hayashi was dispatched to Paris in 1878 as a translator from French at the Exposition Universelle. He opted to remain in Paris, setting up a business selling Japanese art and crafts. The number of Japanese woodblock prints dispersed at auction alone after his death is staggering. He was active in cultural circles in Paris and his expertise is credited for enriching the collecting of Japanese art abroad. Later, he was criticized for having fostered too great an exodus of art from Japan. In 2019, the National Museum of Western Art in Japan mounted an exhibition to reframe Hayashi’s legacy as a cultural ambassador, who himself dreamed of a complementary flow of Western art to his homeland.

More from Japanese and Korean Art

View All
View All