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Portrait of a beautiful woman (Bijin)



Katsukawa Shun'ei


1762 – 1819

  • Details

    Other Titles
    (A courtesan reading a letter)
    Beauty (bijin)
    Alternative title
    Yûjo no zu
    Place where the work was made
    Kansei era 1789-1801 Edo (Tokugawa) period 1615 - 1868 → Japan
    Media categories
    Scroll , Painting , Calligraphy
    Materials used
    hanging scroll; ink and colour on silk
    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.

    Purchased 1985
    Not on display
    Accession number

    Reproduction requests

    Artist information
    Katsukawa Shun'ei

    Works in the collection


  • About

    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.

  • Places

    Where the work was made


  • Exhibition history

    Shown in 5 exhibitions

  • Bibliography

    Referenced in 14 publications

Other works by Katsukawa Shun'ei