Toyokuni I

Utagawa Toyokuni I


The Debut of a New Geisha
(Geisha hatsudashi zu)

each sheet signed Toyokuni ga, with publisher's seal To (Yamaguchiya Tobei, Kinkodo), with censor's seal kiwame (approved), ca. 1810s

oban tate-e triptych 14 7/8 by 29 5/8 in., 37.8 by 75.4 cm

An intimate view of three beauties getting ready for a special event: The Debut of a New Geisha (Geisha hatsudashi zu). In the center sheet we see the star of the show, a lithe young geisha stands modeling her outfit, an understated mauve brown kosode of with waterbirds over a pattern of swirling waves below the knees and the hem padded lightly with a green fabric decorated with a delicate white floral pattern. The subtle robe is offset with a large brocade obi decorated with white camellia blossoms over a black scrolling motif against a red (oxidized iron) ground. She is twisting her torso as though to check the complex bow tied towards the back and ask her friend seated to her right: 'does this look okay? Her companion turns to her in response while drying her neck with a towel. Seated at her kyodai (dressing table), she is further behind in her preparations for the evening. Her hair undone and she has not bothered to completely close her thin dressing gown of pale grey decorated with a pattern of grasses over white resist butterflies. On the opposite side a third geisha, who is dressed and ready to go, sits relaxing on a cloth-covered box or trunk while cleaning her teeth with a toothpick. Wearing a chic black kosode decorated with a pattern of pine needles, ginko and maple leaves at the hem paired with a lattice-patterned obi of somber hues and accessorized with a purse and netsuke in the form a circling dragon, she exudes an air of authority and experience and seems to regard the young geisha with approval.

Unlike most images of floating world beauties, Toyokuni explicitly identifies these ladies as geisha, professional entertainers, not to be confused with courtesans, who were professional prostitutes. By the late Edo period (1600-1868), the roles (and visual cues) that defined and differentiated a courtesan from a geisha were increasingly ambiguous. Courtesans were similar to geisha in that they were trained in the arts and were frequently accomplished musicians; and geisha could choose to arrange assignations and patronage (with 'benefits') with their customers. As such, ukiyo-e artists frequently blurred the distinction between the two, particularly by the 1820s, a period when geisha were approaching the height of popularity and were eclipsing high-ranking courtesans as arbiters of fashion and style. The subdued hues of the kosode and obi worn by the women in this composition reflect the influence of the iki (chic) style of restrained elegance popularized by geisha and embraced by merchant-class women of Edo.

(inv. no. 10-5452)

price: $8,500

Utagawa Toyokuni I
detail (right sheet)

Utagawa Toyokuni I
detail (center sheet)


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site last updated
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Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
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