Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Stories of Wise Women and Faithful Wives: Princess Terute, 1841/42. Oban.
This piece is from a very highly regarded series by Kuniyoshi of thirty-four prints carried out in the early 1840’s. The series is notable as being the first in ukiyo-e and the first in Kuniyoshi’s career to be devoted entirely to strong images of women. Some derive from the traditional Chinese, Confucian texts of self sacrifice and virtue but Kuniyoshi has added to this canon with portraits of women who have resisted male dominated society and exhibited strength and virtue in a far more modern way and in ways that we might today recognise. A revolutionary departure for this series was to present women in non-sexual ways - hitherto women had been drawn with sexual attraction as the primary feature. This was ground-breaking at the time and established a strong tradition, culminating with Yoshitoshi, of showing women as strong independent members of society.
This print depicts Princess Terute who is sent to work in a brothel after making love to her betrothed Prince Hangan. Meanwhile Hangan is in hell but the god of Hell agrees that Hangan can return to the world, but only in the form of a grotesquely disfigured man in order to cure him of his love sickness. He has to remain sitting in a cart which will be pulled by various people to whom it will be counted as merit toward going to heaven.
Terute refuses to ply her trade like the others. Instead she works hard and does all the menial household work. One day Hangan's cart is left outside and she goes out to enquire about him. When she realizes that she can earn merit for her late husband and his followers by pulling his cart she takes five days' leave. She never realizes that the man she is pulling is in reality her late husband returned from the dead. Hangan, however, does realize when she tells him why she is pulling his cart, but he cannot bring himself to reveal his true identity to her. However, during the few days they are together they develop a warm bond. Finally, she poignantly says that she would be glad to find out that her husband were still alive even if he were disfigured like him. They are eventually reunited after a miraculous cure.
Interestingly, Kuniyoshi chooses not to depict Hangan but instead shows Terute struggling with a long coil of rope, one half wheel only being visible to the left of the print.
The print is in fine condition, full size with margins, the colour remains fresh and strong.
Signed Kochoro Kuniyoshi ga. Published by Iba-ya Sensaburo.
A copy of this print is in the British Museum London .
Others from the series are in the Museum Of Fine Arts Boston.
38cm x 25cm.