Suzuki Harunobu, “Courtesan and Kamuro,” c. 1765-70

Seigle_Harunobu_Courtesan copy

Artist: Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725-1770)
Title: Unknown (Courtesan and kamuro)
Date: c. 1765-70
Medium: Full-color woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Size: chūban
Publisher: unknown
Gift of Dr. Cecilia Segawa Seigle

This work by Suzuki Harunobu features a pair of the artist’s characteristically petite figures: a courtesan (yūjo) and her young attendant (kamuro). The standing woman’s identity as a yūjo is manifested in the details of her dress: yūjo typically wore their sash tied to the front and were always depicted barefoot, without the split-toed socks worn by most members of society. This lack of footwear implied their desirability and availability, and was intrinsically linked to rituals of marriage and sexual exchange.

The disarray of other items in the interior – the slippers untidily left in the corridor, the kimono flung over a display rack, the letter dropped on the floor – and the woman’s casual gesture as she removes her hairpin are reminiscent of the behind-the-scenes informality evoked by contemporary literature about the Yoshiwara pleasure district. The twin crests on the curtain separating the room may indicate the name of the brothel in which the yūjo resides and to which she would be contractually bound. Another impression is held by the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art in Kanazawa, Japan.

Further reading:

• Hillier, J. Suzuki Harunobu: An Exhibition of His Colour-prints and Illustrated Books on the Occasion of the Bicentenary of His Death in 1770. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art; Distributed by Boston Book and Art, 1970.
• Kobayashi, Tadashi et. al. Seishun No Ukiyoeshi Suzuki Harunobu: Edo No Kararisuto Tōjō. Chiba-shi: Chiba-shi Bijutsukan, 2002.
• Lindsey, William R. Fertility and Pleasure: Ritual and Sexual Values in Tokugawa Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.
• Waterhouse, David. The Harunobu Decade: A Catalogue of Woodcuts by Suzuki Harunobu and His Followers in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2013.


Nina Blomfield
April 26, 2016