So little is known about the late 18th-century artist Eishosai Choki (fl. ca. 1780-1808) and so limited was his output, that he would be dismissed as a minor artist were it not for a small body of half-length portraits of beauties which must be placed among the masterpieces of Japanese prints.
Almost nothing is known of Choki's biography except that during the 1780s he worked in the studio of the book illustrator Toriyama Sekien (1712-88) and that sometime around 1808 or 1809 he disappeared from the art scene. He first used the name Shiko, which he then renounce for Choki, the art name under which he produced his best-known prints. From about 1795 or 1796 he is said to have once again styled himself Shiko and then around 1801 reverted back to Choki. To confuse matters further his master Sekien also had another pupil (better known as a haiku poet) who also used the name Shiko, and there was at one time a debate over whether this was the same person as Choki. Today they are considered different artists. A painting by Choki using his Momokawa Shiko signature was sold in these Rooms, October 31, 1995, lot 337.
His most famous prints are four groups of half-length portraits of beauties which were issued by two rival publishing houses, the Koshodo of Tsutaya Juzaburo (1750-1797) and the Senkakudo of Tsuruya Kiemon (active ca. 1790-1840). While the chronology of Choki's work has not been established, stylistic analysis suggests that the present print was published around 1794-95, slightly later than his famous beauties in the four seasons set, also published by Tsutaya, but earlier than the yellow ground bust portraits, published by Tsuruya circa 1795-96.
Six prints are known from the set. Most depict teahouse waitresses from Osaka and geisha. The portraits in the set comprise: the serving girl Nui of the Sumiyoshiya adjusting the sash of the geisha Tamino [Art Institute of Chicago]; Kan, the waitress of the Izutsuya conversing with the geisha Fuseya of the Ogiya teahouse [Tokyo National Museum]; Moto, the servant of the Yoshidaya of Osaka Shinmachi, serving sake to the courtesan Yaemurasakidayu of the Azuma Ogiya [Museo d'Arte Orientale, Genoa]; the geisha Osasa of the Oriya conversing with the servant Mizue of the Harimaya [Musee Guimet]; tyhe geisha Shishikano of the Sakase drinking sake with the servant Hatsu of the Takashimaya [present whereabouts unknown]; and the present print, of which this is the only impression known to survive.
This is not the only series in which Choki takes as his subject the women of the licensed pleasure districts of Osaka. Why Tsutaya, an Edo publisher who specialized in portraits of women of the Yoshiwara, should publish a series devoted to the women of a city far away, provides yet another mystery. Perhaps Choki was from Osaka. Since individual Choki prints survive in very small quantities, one may speculate that these prints were not for public sale but were a private commission, possibly for a wealthy Osaka merchant. This would account for the lack of censorship seals, obligatory for any commercially published print in Edo from 1791 onwards, and the expensive paper and pigments.
The splendid preservation of the color in this impression gives an idea of the original intention of the artist and publisher. Few prints from this period have retained their original color. Critics have commented that Choki's work can seem melancholy and oppressive--but when prints such as the present example are viewed in their original state, complete with bright colors and shimmering mica grounds, they are vivacious and full of fun, and convey a sparkling sense of joie de vivre.