Hishikawa Moronobu 菱川師宣 (1631-1694)
Lovers in Boudoir
From an untitled portfolio

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), c. 1682
Woodblock print; ink on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991

This frontispiece of an erotic album has long been interpreted as depicting a high-ranking courtesan, her client, and a shinzō (apprentice courtesan). Some scholars, however, have recently argued that the furnishings shown here, including a bed canopy with flowing, gossamer fabric and a Kanō-style folding screen painting, seem far too luxurious for a brothel in Edo’s most popular red-light district, the Yoshiwara. With the central figure further lacking the hallmarks of a courtesan, such as a kimono sash tied with a bow in front of her abdomen, these critics argue, we are ultimately forced to identify these individuals as a wealthy nobleman, his lover, and a personal attendant gathered at the man’s private estate.

Regardless of its connection with the Japanese sex industry, discussed in depth elsewhere in this exhibition, this print is hailed as one of Moronobu’s finest works for stylistic reasons. Rarely is the dynamic “singing line” for which Moronobu was often praised as evident as it is here in the gracefully undulating contours of the figure’s garments and the canopy netting. Though the figures are all fully clothed, such formalistic devices imbue this scene with a degree of sensuality rivaling that of the most explicit erotica.

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