Watanabe (Shotei) Seitei, (1851-1918)
Shirabyoshi Dancer in an Asazuma-Bune
hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk; signed Seitei, with artist's seal Seitei
painting 27 1/8 by 18 1/8 in., 69 by 46 cm
overall 65 by 33 7/8 in., 165 by 86 cm
Shirabyoshi were traditional female court dancers who performed in male costumes. The term, shirabyoshi (lit. 'white measure markers') refers to the white face make-up they wore and the rhythmic music which accompanied the dances. Their distinctive attire included the tate-eboshi hat of a samurai, a tachi (long ceremonial sword), red hakama (pants traditionally worn only by men), white and red suikan (a male Shinto robe), and a kawahori folding fan (carried by men). Although originally associated with the Heian Period (794-1185) courts, shirabyoshi would also perform for high-ranking samurai and religious ceremonies. Similar to the highest ranking courtesans of the pleasure quarters, shirabyoshi were expected to be literate and educated in the arts. In addition to dancers they were also poets, singers, and musicians. Although they were performers by profession, their proximity to men of rank and power understandably resulted in liasons and offspring (some legendary), and as such, shirabyoshi also symbolized romantic sentiments associated with mistresses and lovers.
While shirabyoshi were not necessarily courtesans or concubines, a shirabyoshi dancer seated in a boat became a reference to Asazuma-bune prostitutes. Asazuma was a port on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa near Kyoto. Long boats that were available to cross the inlet, Asazuma-bune (lit. Asazuma boats), were also used by prostitutes who were celebrated in classical poetry. The poet Saigyo (1126-98) mentions a shirabyoshi in an Asazuma boat. By the Edo period (1600-1868), Asazuma became a name for a 'temporary wife,' while Asazuma-bune became shorthand (both verbal and visual) for 'floating' prostitutes.
Shirabyoshi in an Asazuma-bune became a popular theme in songs, dances and in ukiyo-e, often accompanied by poetry or lyrics referencing morning (asa) departures (by boat) from a 'wife' (mistress or prostitute) of the evening. The subject of this painting is based on a famous composition inspired by an older poetic theme adapted to a kouta song by the artist Hanabusa Itcho (1652-1724).
Tim Clark, Ukiyo-e Paintings in the British Museum, 1992, p. 168, no. 119 (for comparison with a painting of the same subject by Teisai Hokuba)
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