Kunisada, Present-day Sparrow Girls of Edo - Looking in the Mirror

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) Present Day Sparrow Girls of Edo: Looking in the Mirror, 1830’s. Oban.

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An arresting design from Kunisada who was for a decade or more the outstanding designer of prints of Edo beauties, (usually referred to as bijin-ga). The enormous brush drawn, black seal in the background is a toshidama seal, which give the gallery its name, and a symbol of good luck that was based on a knotted twist of paper given to children on New Year’s day. The lumps at the top contained the sweets. The symbol was a symbol for Edo (now present day Tokyo), and was considered lucky and auspicious.

The symbol here acts as a framing device. Within the circlet is a picture of a river overhung with spring flowers; in front of the mirror is a standing figure of a woman admiring herself in a bronze hand mirror. The meaning here is not too fanciful: the woman is most likely a prostitute (geisha, courtesan, mistress); she is admiring herself and the picture behind her likely relates to the formal activity of viewing cherry blossom.  The artist is making a connection between the two activities of looking. The subtitle of the print would then be: 'Looking' or 'Viewing the Cherry Blossom'. The title of the series seems to be: Present-day Sparrow Girls of Edo (Tôsei Edo suzume) except that the four known prints from the series have a distinctive red series title cartouche as the three examples in the MFA Boston show. This print is identical in every way excepting the red cartouche and the censor seal. I’d suggest that this print was initially made with a publisher who did not take up the option of a series and then was offered to Tenjudo who commissioned a short series on the same design. The prints issued by Tenjudo all have exactly the same theme and composition with titles such as 'Going to the Theatre' or indeed 'Viewing Cherry Blossoms'.

'Sparrow Girls' has an obvious meaning even in translation. This is a rare print, no other examples appear to exist.  Colour and impression are very good, condition is excellent, some yellowing to the paper and some slight fading. Excellent over all.

37 x 25 cm.