Kitagawa Utamaro 喜多川歌麿 (1753-1806)
Picture-book of the Green Houses: Annual Events
(Seirō ehon: Nenjū Gyōji 青楼絵本 年中行事), vol. 1

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1804
Artist-proof for woodblock-printed book; ink on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003

Along with A Mirror of Beautiful Women of the Green Houses Compared (1776) by Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820) and Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-1792), on display nearby, Picture-book of the Green Houses: Annual Events is considered to be one of the most thorough artistic documentations of life in the Yoshiwara. In many ways, it is far more revealing than Shigemasa and Shunshō’s work, since it depicts the courtesans entertaining clients and dealing with a variety of tasks ranging in mood from celebratory to mundane.

Shown here are a number of women from one of the brothels celebrating the New Year. On the far left, a kamuro has received a poppin whistle, which she merrily blows. In the center of the two-page spread, a shinzō admires a new bolt of cloth decorated with her brothel’s crest. An oiran stands next to her and tries on a new kimono, while in the right corner, the brothel’s secretary (banshin) prepares gifts of money for other courtesans.

The images here confirm that, as Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750) and his son Nishikawa Suketada (act. 1740-1760) discussed in their text The Illustrated Lives of Women (on display nearby), courtesans of a relatively high rank were able to enjoy a lifestyle that was far more physically and emotionally comfortable than one might otherwise imagine. Their fortunes eventually declined, however, as age caused changes in their physical appearance and led them to retirement.

View this book in its entirety on museum database (enabled through support by the Robert F. Lange Foundation)