Courtesan Gazing at Nihon Embankment


The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. Bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) capture the trends in feminine beauty by featuring both real and idealized images of high-ranking courtesans, historic figures, geisha (performers of music and dance), lower-ranked courtesans, fictional characters, notable townswomen, and ordinary women. In this print, dating from around 1794, Toyokuni (1769–1825) portrays a courtesan standing, depicting her at a moment of her daily life rather than emphasizing overt eroticism. Toyokuni was a widely renowned ukiyo-e artist, and helped to establish nishiki-e (full-color prints) as a popular art form throughout Japan.

Last updated: September 18, 2015