Ninsômi (人相見), "persons who look at faces,” were professional physiognomists who interpreted (mi, 見 view or perceive) a person’s face (sô, 相 countenance or physiognomy). Ninsômi (sometimes referred to simply as sômi) offered counsel based on the belief that people exhibited distinct personality types through their physiognomy. Some used the divinatory “Book of Changes” as a general guide.
Kunisada's series Ukiyo jinsei tengankyô (Types of the floating world seen through a physiognomist's glass: 浮世人精天眼鏡) consists of ten known designs, each with extended inscriptions purporting to describe the characteristics of different types of female personalities as interpreted in the manner of a physiognomist. This was a fanciful conceit for a theme featuring various women in ukiyo-e prints, one that Kitagawa Utamaro (多川歌麿 c. 1753-1806) had taken up in masterful fashion three and four decades earlier in his series Fuju ninsô juppon (Ten classes of women’s physiognomy: 婦女人相十品), c. 1792-94, and Bijin gomensô (Five faces of beauties: 美人五面相), c. 1802.
In this design, Kunisada portrays a high-ranking courtesan intent on writing a love letter. While holding a writing brush, she clenches a tissue between her teeth, suggesting that the content of her missive and the object of her affections are bringing up rather strong emotions. Although noted especially for his actor prints, Kunisada also produced an impressive corpus of bijin-ga (prints of beautiful women: 美人画) that included many of the best examples of the genre in his day. We believe that the present charming design qualifies as one of these excellent bijinga.
The long inscription was written, on request, by the author of popular fiction Santô Kyôzan (1769-1858), who signed "Santô an Kyôzan" (山東庵京山). He was the younger brother of the celebrated "floating-world" writer Santô Kyôden (1761-1816).
Other impressions are in the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (11.15626); and the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts.
There are many publications on the works of Kunisada. A good introduction in English is by Sebastian Izzard (with essays by J. Thomas Rimer and John Carpenter): Kunisada's World. New York: Japan Society in collaboration with Ukiyo-e Society of America, 1993.