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Portrait of a beautiful woman (Bijin)



Katsukawa SHUN'EI


1762 - 1819


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.


Other Titles


(A courtesan reading a letter)

Beauty (bijin)

Alternative title

Yûjo no zu

Place where the work was made




Media categories

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


Artist information

Katsukawa SHUN'EI

Works in the collection



Where the work was made

Shown in 5 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 14 publications


Gary Hickey, Beauty & desire in Edo period Japan, 'Pleasure Town', pg. 25-36, Parkes, 1998, 31, 34 (colour illus.), 71. 29

Gary Hickey, Japan Review, 'Cultural Divide: Japanese Art in Australia (1868-2012), pp. 191-223, Japan, 2015, 212 (colour illus.).

Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Asian Collection: East Asia', pg. 246-287, Sydney, 1999, 277 (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, AGNSW Collections, 'Asian Art - India, South-East Asia, China, Tibet, Korea, Japan', pg. 173-228, Sydney, 1994, 225 (colour illus.).

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

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

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

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

The Floating World: Japan's world of transient pleasures, Sydney, 1994, illus.. C25

Asian Collection Handbook, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1990, cover (colour illus.).

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

Look, Heidelberg, Apr 1997, 25 (colour illus.).

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.