Kitagawa Utamaro Seven Komachi of the Yoshiwara woodblock print

detail Harunobu print

Harunobu woodblock seal

Kitagawa Utamaro, (1753-1806)

Seven Komachi of the Yoshiwara: Takigawa of the Ogiya
(Seiro Nana Komachi: Ogiya Nai Takigawa)

beauty holding towel with purple tie-dyed pattern; signed Shomei [genuine] Utamaro hitsu, publisher's seal Sen-sa han, the reverse with collector's seal, W.J.S., ca. 1794-95

oban tate-e 15 1/8 by 10 1/4 in., 38.4 by 26.1 cm

Although the title of this series of seven prints suggests the subject of episodes from the life of the beautiful 9th century poetess Ono no Komachi, in this case 'Komachi' is used as a term synonymous with 'beauty' and 'seiro' (derived from a Chinese term connotating the blue/green wall of a stately mansion) refers to 'green houses' or brothels. It was common by the Edo period for 'seiro' to be read as 'Yoshiwara.'

Seiro Nana Komachi, depicting seven courtesans and kamuro of the Yoshiwara, is among the rarest of Utamaro's okubi-e series. According to the Yoshiwara saiken guides, 1794 is the only year that each of the beauties depicted in the series are also listed in the saiken. The series also seems to demonstrate the earliest examples of style of complex carving at the hairline; a display of technical achievement by the carver(s) and/or perhaps a new focus on emphasizing elaborate hair-combing.

The Nanakomachi, the seven episodes in the life of Komachi as portrayed in the theater and ukiyo-e, include story that intersects with another legend, that of the Tanabata festival. In Sekidera Komachi ('Komachi at Sekidera') a No play written by Zeami Motokiyo (1363- 443), Komachi is at the end of her life when her beauty has faded and she is living in poverty. On the evening of the Tanabata Festival (celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month), Komachi is visited by the abbot of Sekidera who is accompanied by two priests and a child. When the child begins a dance, Komachi is inspired to dance herself, which she does so until dawn, contemplating the transience of life and the beauty and youth she squandered on pride. Her story is set in contrast to the Tanabata, a star festival is focused on the legend of the two lovers, The Weaving Princess (the Vega star) and the Herdsman (the Altair star), who celebrate the one night every year they are permitted to cross the Milky Way and be together.

References:
J. Hillier, Utamaro, 1961, p. 6, no. 2 (for comparison with a brush drawing from the Tikotin Collection)
Illustrated Catalogues of Tokyo National Museum: Ukiyo-e Prints, volume II, p. 1843, no 1839 (illustrated again in Ukiyo-e Taikei and elsewhere)
Shugo Asano and Timothy Clark, The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro, 1995, plates. 182-185, text. pp. 147-148 (this design not illustrated but refer for other prints from the series)

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