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Utamaro
Kitagawa Utamaro, 1753-1806
Niwaka Festival Performers in Yoshiwara Teahouse
(Hikite-jaya no niwaka-shu)

each sheet signed Utamaro hitsu, with publisher's seal of Izumiya Ichibei (Kansendo), ca. 1800-01
oban tate-e triptych 29 by 14 5/8 in., 73.8 by 37.1 cm
A handsome young man holding a sake cup in the center sheet is being entertained by a courtesan and her retinue along with a group of geisha wearing costumes for the Niwaka festival. The ranking courtesan to his left is accompanied by her attendants on the right sheet: a shinzo (teenaged apprentice courtesan), identified by her furisode ('swinging sleeves') kimono, who stands beside two kamuro (child attendants) wearing matching kimono, one of whom is having her obi adjusted by a woman who may be the teahouse mistress.
A male geisha (entertainer) seated across from the client wears a costume of a member of a Korean ambassador's procession. On the left sheet a female geisha in the costume of a street peddler is conversing with the client behind her folding fan, and another female geisha in the costume of a kitchen servant turns to talk to the tea house waitress entering with a shamisen box under her arm. Asano and Clark point to the raised floor (seen on the lower left corner of the left sheet) to identify the location of the party at an assignation teahouse on the central Nakanocho boulevard in the Yoshiwara.
The geisha are apparently making their rounds during the Niwaka Festival, an extravagent event which was hosted annually in the Yoshiwara during the 8th lunar month. Niwaka (lit. 'spontaneous') entertainment originated in the early 1700s as impromptu comedic skits that were performed on the streets or temporary stages, often in association with a shrine festival. The lighthearted performances were first adapted by courtesans in Edo around 1730 but by the mid century the popularity of niwaka had waned. It was revived again by geisha in the 1770s as a more organized event in order to boost business. The Yoshiwara Niwaka Festival included costumed processions, parade floats (in the style of the Gion Festival in Kyoto), and niwaka skits performed primarily by geisha who were sometimes joined by the younger shinzo and kamuro. During the festival the strict regulations regarding access to the pleasure quarters were relaxed, allowing Edokko (residents of Edo) of all social positions, including women, the opportunity to visit the Yoshiwara and take in the spectacle.
References:
Shugo Asano and Timothy Clark, The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro, 1995, cat. no. 358
Amy Reigle Newland, ed. The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints, 2005, Vol. II, p. 476 (on niwaka)
price: $ 25,000