The Courtesan Usugumo of Tama-ya


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. This aizuri-e (indigo-printed picture) is a panel from a triptych. Various shades of indigo blue, popular in the 1830s when Prussian-blue pigment was imported from the Netherlands, were expressed by techniques such as gradation. This print was created before or during the early years of the Tenpō Reforms, in which the government restricted luxurious activities such as entertainment, and censored related prints. The circle censor’s stamp on the lower left, with the character “kiwami,” indicates that the print had been officially censored beforehand by the local printers before circulation.

Last updated: May 23, 2012