Shunsen, Courtesan Wearing an Obi with Design of Carp Kakemono-e

Katsukawa Shunsen (1762-1830) Courtesan Wearing an Obi with Design of Carp, 1810's. Vertical Diptych (kakemono).

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The current selection is of five vertical diptych prints, sometimes called kakemono-e.  They are all by the highly regarded artist, Katsukawa Shunsen. The prints are most likely to have been produced between 1805 and 1820.

All of the prints are of females, courtesans, escorts — there are many words to describe young women of high status who were professional mistresses. The position was dangerous and tenuous, but the social structure of Edo Japan was very different to modern society and for those in the west, of course, the particular moral structure of a loosely Christian society was wholly absent. When the American navy imposed trade agreements on the failing Tokugawa regime in the mid 1860’s the pious missionaries and capitalist trades representatives demanded a moral revolution designed to clean up public displays of immorality, mixed bathing, public nudity and of course the vast and incomprehensible "red light district", the Yoshiwara.

During the early nineteenth century, women such as those pictured in these prints were admired and celebrated in a form known as bijin-ga ("pictures of beautiful women")… the vertical format of two oban prints, pasted together was intended to be scroll-mounted and backed and hung in niches or on pillars in the manner of a votive piece.

This print has been removed from its decorative scroll but is in excellent condition. It shows a ‘courtesan’ in a lavish set of robes, richly decorated with a leaping carp and riverside flowers. There may be some implied symbolism in the decoration: the carp is a symbol of perseverance etc. Something of note is the extraordinary and elaborate wooden hair pegs called kanzashi— ten in all, each of them at least a foot in length. These were often made from tortoiseshell, silver, gold and gemstones, worn in a number of heavily-waxed hairstyles.

There is a very odd conundrum with this print. The signature of Katsukawa Shunsen appears on the left of the lower sheet and is unmistakable. Furthermore, beneath the signature is the red ‘bag’ seal - shun - for Shunsen.  A known version using the identical blocks exists in the single oban format of just the upper sheet, but in that case, signed very clearly by the artist Utamaro II. It is unlikely whether it could ever be established who is the original author here. Both artists were exact contemporaries, both dying in 1831.

The print is in excellent condition for its type. Two sheets not attached and unbacked. The previous mounting has been removed, although there is the typical yellowing to the paper. The design is deeply embossed with patterned decoration over the whole surface. The delicate vestigial colours have survived well. Condition overall is very good. Impression also very good.

74 x 25 cm.

£620.00 Sale! £420.00