Courtesan Tying Her Obi

Hanging scroll: ink, color, and gold pigment on silk, Edo period, Bunka era, ca. 1810–12, 36¼ x 13¼ in. (92.0 x 33.6 cm), Signed: Utagawa Toyokuni ga, Sealed: Ichiyōsai, Provenance: Itō Shinsui (1898–1972), Published: Takahashi Seiichirō, et al. 1964. Orimpiku Tokyo taikai kinen nikuhitsu ukiyo-e meisaku ten/The exhibition of ukiyo-e hand-paintings in commemoration of the Tokyo Olympics. Exh. Cat. (Tokyo: Mainichi Shimbunsha), no. 123., Asano Shūgō, et al. 2015. Nikuhitsu Ukiyo-e no Sekai/Ukiyo-e Paintings. Exh. Cat. (Fukuoka: Fukuoka City Museum, Nishi Nihon Shimbunsha), no. 86.

Any skilled ukiyo-e painter had the ability to communicate his personality through the precision of his draftsmanship, which, combined with his sense of style and élan, evolved as his life progressed. The natural trajectory of a painter’s career, from his youthful beginnings as a student completing illustrations for cheap books and ephemera, to his celebrated maturity, meant that commissions for expensive paintings tended to become more numerous towards the end of his life, after commercial success had been achieved. At the time that this painting was made, Toyokuni was the head of the dominant ukiyo-e school of the period. His great actor prints of the 1790s were behind him, and the artist concentrated on commissions for fine paintings, and on teaching his many students.   

Judging from the style of the signature and the delineation of the face, this portrait of a geisha adjusting her obi, her face slightly flushed from drinking sake, and a roll of her lipstick- stained all-purpose kaishi paper clenched in her teeth, dates from around 1810. It is a superb example of Toyokuni’s painting style of this date, with robust figures and amusing details, artfully rendered with beautiful patterning and colors to attract the eye. 

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