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Oiran and kamuro
Ryûsai Shigeharu (柳齋重春)
Artist seal: Unread
N/A (painting on paper)
c. mid 1830s
(H x W)
27.5 x 32.7 cm
N/A (painting on paper)
Excellent color and very good condition (thinly backed; lack of pigment along vertical chain line, small smudge lower right corner)
Price (USD/¥):
$725 / Contact us to pay in yen (¥)

Order/Inquiry: SGH25


Images of courtesans and their attendants were a primary trope in ukiyo-e prints and paintings. Courtesan imagery in ukiyo-e included views of alluring beauties in their private quarters, close-up idealized "portraits," erotic couplings with clients, musical performances, gatherings at teahouses, calligraphy and painting parties, outings to scenic places, and walking slowly in procession down the main streets of the pleasure quarters. How well they paraded was one of the attributes considered by prospective customers as well as by the many hangers-on who could not afford to pay these icons for their services. For a small cost, men (and presumably some women) purchased evaluation books called yûjo hyôbanki (critiques of pleasure women: 遊女評判記). These were guides to the pleasure quarters, regularly published, often on the occasion of the New Year, containing rankings and critiques of the courtesans of a given district for the previous year. Their appearance and skills, erotic or otherwise, were assessed, subjectively and sometimes rather harshly. Related types of guidebooks were called saiken (lit., "close inspection," directories of, or factual street-by-street guides to, high-ranking courtesans and lower-ranking prostitutes: 細見).


An ôiran (high-ranking courtesan: 花魁) and her kamuro (young attendant between the ages of seven and fourteen: 禿) are shown here out on parade or on their way to an assignation, presumably in the Shinmachi pleasure district of Osaka. Although not an actual portrait, the muti-layered robes, riot of hairpins, and charmingly bedecked kamuro are consistent with a high rank of ôiran. The modern characters used to write ôiran mean "flower" and "to excel" (with a literary connotation similar to "leading flower"), but the original oral expression was possibly a contraction of ôira no anechan ("our elder sister," from ane, "elder sister," a familiar term for addressing a woman), and chan, the diminutive of san (Mr. or Miss). Kamuro not only assisted high-ranking courtesans, but were also future courtesans/prostitutes in training. Sometimes called kaburo (with the same kanji), there were two main types — mawashi kamuro, who were not attached to particular courtesans, and hikkomi kamuro, who were older kamuro of rare beauty whose skills were honed under the direct supervision of brothel owners.

Shigeharu's informal sketch is composed of quickly executed sumi (black ink: 墨) outlines and washes, plus the addition of some light colors. Often such less-finished paintings have been ignored by painting connoisseurs and collectors as being inferior to the more highly polished nishiki paintings, and until recently few have been reproduced in books or catalogues. Nevertheless, these sketches possess a verve and immediacy often lacking in the more studied paintings, and thus offer perhaps a more intimate view of an artist's initial spontaneous response to his subject. Shigeharu's drawing is in the Shijô (四条) manner, a style of painting (Shijô school, Shijô-ha: 四条派) derived from the Maruyama school (円山派 often referred to as "Maruyama-Shijô"). The school is said to have developed in the Shijô section of Kyoto where some of the notable practitioners of Maruyama-Shijô painting lived. One artist credited with developing the style was Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811), who combined the styles of Nanga literati and the more realism-based Maruyama school.