Light Makeup in the Modern Style: Beauty on a Ladder
(Tosei usugesho: Bijin)
the series title, Tosei (present or modern times) in the circular cartouche in the shape of the artist's Toshidama seal, overlapping a rectangular banner-shaped cartouche continuing the title, usugesho (light make-up), signed Gototei (trimmed) Kunisada ga with artist's double Toshidama seal, censor's seal kiwame, publisher's mark Mi (Mikawaya Seiemon, possibly of Shimizu), ca. 1825-26
oban tate-e 14 1/2 by 9 3/4 in., 36.9 by 24.8 cm
A beauty carefully negotiates a ladder while carrying a small ceramic jar of makeup. The loosely tied obi barely secures the partially open kimono with its long furisode (lit. 'swinging sleeves') trailing on the rungs. The figure's hairstyle is distinguished by a small shaved patch just behind the forelock in manner associated with male wakashu (young men who have not reached the age of maturity at which point they shave their entire pate), although women inspired by gorgeous kabuki actors would mimic this fashion as well. The facial features with an alert, wide-eyed expression and the slightly protruding lower lip are noticeably similar to that of the great kabuki actor, Iwai Hanshiro V (1776-1847), an onnagata (actor specializing in female roles) who was known for his beauty and distinctive mesenryo (lit.'eyes worth a thousand gold pieces').
This design is from a rare mid-1820s bijin (lit. 'beautiful person') series featuring figures in various stages of dressing that was published utilizing three variations on the series title: Tosei usugesho (Light Makeup in the Modern Style); Jisei usugesho (Light Make-up of Present Times) and Jisei (Present Times). Although only ten designs are recorded, the series is notable in that among the female figures there is at least one unambiguous male subject depicting an actor wearing a murasaki boshi (purple cloth worn by onnagata to cover their shaved pate) applying make-up while seated at a mirror mounted with a lantern. In the background are distinctive stage props including a massive axe used in famous axe duel scene from the play Seki no to, and a water bucket of the type used in the story the tragic sister salt-gatherers, Matsukaze and Murasame. That design has been identified as a thinly-veiled portrait of Segawa Kikunojo V (1802-1832), a leading onnagata in the 1820s who was regarded as being so attractive, he influenced the way ukiyo-e artists depicted beautiful women.
Kunisada included the Kikunojo V portrait and this Hanshiro V likeness within this bijin series as idealized types in a way that transcends gender while also demonstrating how influential leading onnagata were upon fashions and perceptions of beauty itself.
Narazaki Muneshige & Shugo Asano, eds, Hizo ukiyo-e taikan, Victoria and Albert Museum, vols. 4-5, 1988-1989, vol. 5, fig. 1 (Segawa Kikunojo V portrait)
Andreas Marks, Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium, 2011, pp. 235-236
Museum of Fine Arts Boston, accession nos. 17.3214.28 and RES.54.187.13 (both with series title Tosei usugesho); no. 11.15235 (series title Jisei usugesho)
(inv. no. 10-5228)
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