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Utamaro
Kitagawa Utamaro, 1753-1806
Brine Carriers
(Shiokumi)

each sheet signed Utamaro hitsu, with publisher's seal Waka, of Wakasaya Yoichi (Jakurindo), ca. 1804
oban tate-e triptych 29 3/4 by 14 5/8 in., 75.5 by 37.3 cm
This triptych depicting a group of beautiful woman gathering brine at a seashore gently references a classical literary subject, the sad story of the two sisters, Matsukaze ('Wind in the Pines') and Murasame ('Atumn Rain'), from the famous Noh drama, Matsukaze, which was written in the 14th century by Kanami, and revised by his son Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363-c.1443). The story is based on the legend of the nobleman Ariwara no Yukihira who spent three years in exile at Suma. While expelled to the shrine famously located at a beach, he indulged himself in dalliances with two sisters who were lowly salt-collectors. Shortly after his punishment is ended and he abandons them to return to court, they hear that he had died, causing the sisters to die of broken hearts themselves, but their spirits remain trapped, lingering at the beach at Suma because of the sin of attachment to mortal passions. In the play, Matsukaze's spirit continues to descend in to madness, while her sister Murasame's spirit eventually releases herself from her desires and is able to transcend beyond the physical world.
The story was adapted as a puppet play by Chikamatsu Mozaemon (1653-1725) and eventually as a kabuki drama which was subsequently condensed into a hengemono (multi-role) dance, Shiokumi (Dance of the Salt Maidens), performed as an interlude between other plays. Utamaro's interpretation of Shiokumi expands the theme to a gathering of seven beauties with one young man one child at the edge of the foaming surf along a beach. They wear the costume of the salt maidens with rustic grass skirts and carry the buckets of brine suspend from yokes resting across their shoulders, but their tops also fall open revealing their bare breasts without too much concern for decorum. The mood among the beautiful laborers appears playful, far removed from the tragedy of the original legend.
References:
Kiyoshi Shibui, Ukiyo-e Zuten Utamaro, 1964, 34.1.1-3
Gina Collia-Suzuki, The Complete Woodblock Prints of Kitagawa Utamaro, A Descriptive Catalogue, 2009, pp. 421-422
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (mfa.org), from the Bigelow Collection, accession no. 11.14470-1 (center and right sheets only)
Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org), from the Havemeyer Collection, accession no. JP1683
price: $ 26,000