An image of Portrait of a beautiful woman (Bijin)

Katsukawa SHUN'EI

(Japan 1762 – 1819)

Portrait of a beautiful woman (Bijin)

Other titles:
Bijin, (A courtesan reading a letter), Beauty (bijin)
Not on display
Further information

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.

Place of origin
Japan: Edo (Tokugawa) period 1615–1868, Kansei era 1789–1801
Painting, Calligraphy
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
Accession number