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Collection

An image of Portrait of a beautiful woman (Bijin) by Katsukawa SHUN'EI

Katsukawa SHUN'EI

(Japan 1762 – 1819)

Title
Portrait of a beautiful woman (Bijin)
Other titles:
Bijin
(A courtesan reading a letter)
Beauty (bijin)
Alternative title:
Yûjo no zu
Place of origin
Japan
Period
Kansei era 1789-1801Edo (Tokugawa) period 1615 - 1868 → Japan
Year
1790s
Media categories
Painting, Calligraphy
Materials used
hanging scroll; ink and colour on silk
Dimensions

83.7 x 33.0 cm image; 177.0 x 47.0 x 52.4 cm scroll

Signature & date
Signed c.r., in Japanese [inscribed in ink] "Shunei ga [artist's seal]". Not dated.
Credit
Purchased 1985
Accession number
339.1985
Location
Not on display
Further information

A sense of deep sadness pervades this image of a 'bijin', an idealised beauty, as she sits in isolation staring at a letter unrolled before her, perhaps contemplating a bleak future. Certainly there is an air of despair, of rejection and poignant introspection to the image. The poem above, written by the satirical poet and writer of popular fiction Ota Nampo (1749-1823), tells of her plight in commenting upon the life of
a courtesan:

'A courtesan, twenty-seven years old,

laments the ten years spent on the bitter ocean.

Looking back,

her life appears a mirage

now she is leaving the quarter'

The expression 'bitter ocean' usually refers to life as a prostitute, and twenty-six or twenty-seven was the usual age at which courtesans were released from their contracts. Something of the harshness of such a life is subtly echoed in the sharply outlined folds of the rich red kimono. The strong graphic character of the image, the subject matter, and the bold colours and rich decorative effect typify the unashamedly popularist 'ukiyo-e' style.

Art Gallery Handbook, 1999. pg. 277.

Bibliography (13)

Gary Hickey, Beauty & desire in Edo period Japan, 'Pleasure Town', pg. 25-36, Parkes, 1998, 31, 34 (colour illus.), 71. fig.no. 29

Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales Handbook, 'Asian Collection: East Asia', pg. 246-287, Sydney, 1999, 277 (colour illus.).

Jackie Menzies, Art of the Brush - Chinese & Japanese painting calligraphy, Sydney, 1995, 24.

Jackie Menzies (Editor), The Asian Collections Art Gallery of New South Wales, 'The Floating World', Sydney, 2003, 253 (colour illus.).

Jackie Menzies, Orientations, 'Japanese Figure Painting: From the Public to the Personal', pg. 114-119, Hong Kong, Sep 2000, 119 (colour illus.). fig.9

Jackie Menzies and Edmund Capon, Asian Collection Handbook, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1990, cover (colour illus.).

Jackie Menzies, The Art Gallery of New South Wales Collections, 'Asian Art - India, South-East Asia, China, Tibet, Korea, Japan', pg. 173-228, Sydney, 1994, 225 (colour illus.).

Jackie Menzies, The Floating World: Japan's world of transient pleasures, Sydney, 1994, illus.. cat.no. C25

KUKI Shûzô, Reflections on Japanese taste: the structure of iki, Sydney, 1997, cover (colour illus.), 24 (detail, illus.), 36 (illus.). The colour illus. on the cover is a detail of this work.

Wendy Symonds (Editor), Look, Heidelberg, Apr 1997, 25 (colour illus.).

Judith White, Look, 'Bringing Australia Asian Culture', pg. 36-37, South Yarra, Apr 2000, 36 (colour illus.).

Judith White, Look, 'Bridging cultures', pg. 38, South Yarra, May 1999, 38.

Margaret White, Passage, 'The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia', pg. 12, Singapore, Sep 2009, 12 (colour illus.).

Exhibition history (4)

The Floating World Revisited:

The Floating World: Japan's World of transient pleasures, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 25 May 1994–17 Jul 1994

Art of the brush, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 23 Sep 1995–12 Nov 1995

Beauty and Desire in Edo period Japan, National Gallery of Australia, Parkes, 06 Jun 1998–09 Aug 1998