Hiroshige, 5 Festivals of the Pleasure Quarter - The Courtesan Kashiku

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Five Festivals of the Pleasure Quarter: The Courtesan Kashiku, 1828. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

This is a rare print. I can find no obvious record of it anywhere; Hiroshige was a landscape artist primarily and female figure portraits by him like this one are extremely unusual. The print comes from the first quarter of the nineteenth century and there is a very particular genre feel to the piece. 
The subject is a well known prostitute by the name of Kashiku. Kashiku would have operated in a world that was fraying at the edges, This excerpt from Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan by Cecilia Segawa Seigle, gives a flavour of the society which also echoes some of our own social upheavals…

… the gap between rich and poor widened. Usurers thrived; citizens financed gracious living through loans and lawsuits involving disputes over money. Morals deteriorated as laws were ignored not only by criminals but by ordinary people. The wily, the ambitious and the cunning ruled this increasingly decadent society.

This is the background against which the pleasure quarter - the Yoshiwara - and the brothels and prostitutes within also thrived. A contemporary described the Yoshiwara prostitutes as : “their fashion is to plaster their hair with grease, they display seven or eight decorated hairpins, and wear two or three huge combs that look like cleats of wooden clogs.”

So here Hiroshige has pictured a contemporary prostitute from one of the biggest and most established of the Yoshiwara brothels, the Tsuruya House. We know she is a prostitute because she holds a wad of tissues between her teeth and her hair is decorated in the particular manner described above. This woman must have been well known because many portraits of her by Kunisada, Eisen and others are in museum collections. She stands beneath a delicate blossom decoration, looking to the right… a very accomplished piece of drawing and a fine, rare print.

Colour and impression are very good and the condition is a little worn, a rare print.

23 x 35 cm.