Katsukawa Shunsen (1762-1830) Courtesan Wearing an Obi with Design of Dragons, c1820. Vertical Diptych (kakemono).
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We have two near identical versions of this very fine design of a Japanese oiran (courtesan) from the early part of the nineteenth century. 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, to them, incomprehensible "red light district", the Yoshiwara.
During the early nineteenth century, women such as those pictured in these prints were admired and celebrated in the form of 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. It is highly likely that the designs were based on well known individuals and that the scrolls were hung in pleasure houses to set the atmosphere of luxury and sophisticated sensuality that was essential to the tremendously successful pleasure palaces such as the island attraction, the Yoshiwara district.
The highly decorative kimono and obi pictured used symbols common to the age; in this case the Chinese dragon in boiling thunder clouds and the imperial chrysanthemum. As was common in these fashion plates, the woman wears a waxed wig creation containing huge hair pins - called kanzashi— a dozen 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 or wigs. Women like this led changes in fashion and the respectable wives of powerful men would make covert trips to the red light districts in order to stay up to date with the latest fashions.
This is a fine example of the highly collectible artist Shunsen. Two sheets unattached and unbacked, the print is in excellent condition for its type. The previous mounting has been removed. The design is deeply embossed with patterned decoration over the whole surface. The delicate vestigial colours have survived well. Condition overall is excellent. Impression also very good, condition is fine for an early example.
74 x 25.5 cm.