The poet Mejiro Sanjin transcribed the words of a sermon by the famous Zen monk Takuan Soho (1573-1646) who is said to have written it on a painting of a courtesan. Among his many achievements as a popularizer of Zen, Takuan founded the Tokaiji Temple in the Shinagawa district of Edo, an area also known for its bordellos. Intriguingly, the same quotation is found on ukiyo-e paintings by Miyagawa Choshun, Kitagawa Yukimaro, Teisai Hokuba and Kuwagata Keisai (for Keisai, see Christie's, New York, An Important Collection of Japanese Ukiyo-e Paintings, October 27, 1998, lot 60).
Hotoke wa ho o uri, soshi wa hotoke o uri
Matsuse no so wa soshi o uru
Nanji wa goshaku no karada o uri, issai shujo no honno o yasumusu
Shikisoku zeku, kusoku zeshiki
Yanagi wa midori, hana wa beni no iroiro ka
Ike no tsura ni yonayona tsuki wa kayoedomo,
Kokoro mo todomasu kage mo nokosazu
Buddha tried to sell the religious law;
the Patriarchs tried to sell the Buddha; Priests of the Final Age of the Law try to sell the Patriarchs.
And you try to sell your five-foot-tall body to allay the passion of mankind.
Form is none other than emptiness, emptiness is none other than form.
Willows are green, and flowers crimson.
Though the moon, night after night, courses across the face of the pond its essence remains undampened nor does its shadow linger.
Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896), the French writer, critic and book publisher who was in the vanguard of Japonisme in the late nineteenth century, once owned this painting. He was an avid collector of Japanese art and made purchases from the Paris-based dealers Hayashi Tadamasa, whom he first mentions in his journal in 1884, and Siegfried Bing. His home in Auteuil was decorated with a large bronze Japanese vase that cost 2,000 francs before things Japanese came into fashion, as well as Japanese lacquer, albums, Satsuma bowls, sword guards and a showcase full of netsuke. Japanese paintings alternated with French drawings on the wall of the spiral staircase leading from the first to the second floor.
In the 1890s, when he was in his seventies, Goncourt published volumes on Utamaro (1891) and Hokusai (1896) with the help of Hayashi's translations of Japanese biographies. He published this painting of a courtesan in the Hokusai voloume and included his translation of the inscription. For an English translation of Goncourt's pioneer monograph on Hokusai see Matthi Forrer, Hokusai (New York: Rizzoli, 1988), especially p. 377.