Shinmachi ("New Quarters": 新町) was Osaka's official licensed pleasure quarter. Both it and the Shimanouchi (lit., "inside the island": 島の内) unlicensed district to the southwest hosted nerimono sugata (costume parades: ねり物姿) featuring waitresses, geisha, and courtesans performing skits or pantomimes about well-known figures from contemporary society, theater, history, and legend. In this colorful pageant, the women were often accompanied by decorative floats carrying musicians and dancers.
Prints depicting women of the nerimono represent an important exception to the tenacious focus on kabuki for which kamigata-e are known. These visual records of participants in the parades offer glimpses into alternative entertainments beyond the kabuki and puppet theaters, and clues regarding what the citizens of nineteenth-century Osaka found fascinating and enjoyable. The nerimono were large-scale fantasies within a special world of asobi (play or amusement: 遊) where pleasure women, geishas, teahouse waitresses, musicians, actors, theater patrons, and bon vivants eagerly sought escape from everyday life.
Shigenobu was the son-in-law and then adopted son of the Edo master Katsushika Hokusai — see Yanagawa Shigenobu. His work in surimono (privately issued specialty prints) with the brilliant Osaka-based woodcarver, printer, and designer Tani Seikô are counted among the glories of ukiyo-e printmaking. Shigenobu was active in Osaka from 1822 to 1825.
Hanazono was a tayû (lit., "great person": 太夫), a courtesan of the highest rank. The appearance of a tayû in a nerimono would have been a sensation, and sales of prints portraying tayû would have benefited accordingly. Both the inner and outermost robes worn by Hanazono-dayû are patterned with butterflies. Given these motifs, the long side flaps of her headgear might suggest "wings." Dangling from the hat are decorative ornaments, while pieces of red coral have been added, one each on either side .
As Shigenobu was an Edo artist visiting Osaka, he chose to sign as Tôto Yanagawa Shigenobu (東都柳川重信), with the Tôto prefix meaning "Eastern," signifying Edo in eastern Japan. This print is from an important series of at least 14 portraits that Shigenobu designed for the parade in 1822 (the series title is written in the pink cartouche at the upper right). It is with this series that Shigenobu premiered the ôban nishkie bijinga in Kamigata.
Sheets from this series are very difficult to find in good condition. Most surviving impressions have faded color in the large uchiwa (rigid fan: 團扇 or 団扇), thus losing the inscriptions printed in reserve. Our impression, however, retains enough of the fan color to make the inscriptions legible. Furthermore, prints of beautiful women (bijin-ga) in any style are uncommon in kamigata-e, making this a highly desirable print.
References: WAS-IV , no. 660; OSP, no. 255; WKN, no. 148; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (11.25833)