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, twenty-seven years old,
laments the ten years spent on the bitter ocean.
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.
(A courtesan reading a letter)
Yûjo no zu
Place where the work was made
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.
Not on display
Where the work was made
Shown in 5 exhibitions
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, Canberra, 06 Jun 1998–09 Aug 1998
Beyond Words: Calligraphic Traditions of Asia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 Aug 2016–30 Apr 2017
Referenced in 14 publications
Gary Hickey, Beauty & desire in Edo period Japan, 'Pleasure Town', pg. 25-36, Parkes, 1998, 31, 34 (colour illus.), 71. fig.no. 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.. cat.no. 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.