Dec 9, 2014

Courtesan Reading a Letter

Courtesan Reading a Letter


early 1800s


Teisai Hokuba 蹄斎 北馬

(Japanese, 1771–1844)

calligraphy by

Ōta Nanpo 大田 南畝

(Japanese, 1749–1823)

Two-panel folding screen; ink and color on paper

Image: 156.8 x 165.4 cm (61 3/4 x 65 1/8 in.); Overall: 175.2 x 183.5 cm (69 x 72 1/4 in.)

The Kelvin Smith Collection, given by Mrs. Kelvin Smith 1985.261



Ukiyo-e artists and collaborating poets introduced imagery from classical literature to add layers of meaning to their work. Here, a courtesan pores over a letter from an admirer, and the poem next to her reads as follows: "Having been asked to stay over, / I stayed on—and for a good reason. / It’s way past midnight / and the lady is that (legendary implorer) Amagoi Komachi." Midnight was closing time in Yoshiwara, the licensed brothel district of Edo (now Tokyo). Amagoi, or “Praying for Rain,” Komachi refers to ninth-century poet Ono no Komachi—known for her compelling verse and great beauty—and one of her famous compositions.

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