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Keisai Eisen (1790-1848)


Eisen kanji Eisen Eisen was born in Edo into the Ikeda family, the son of a Kanô-school painter. He studied with Kanô Hakkeisai, from whom he took the name Keisai, and later he had some as yet unconfirmed connection with Kikugawa Eizan, either as a pupil or acquaintance. Scholars also mention the influence of Katsushika Hokusai upon the young Eisen, as well as that of Yanagawa Shigenobu I (1787-1832).

Eisen was one of several writers and artists who edited and expanded upon the Ukiyo-e ruiko ("History of Prints of the Floating World"), the most informative 18th-19th century source of information on the lives of ukiyo-e artists. Eisen's version (circa 1833) was called the Zoku ukiyo-e ruikô ("Supplement to the History of Prints of the Floating World"), known also as the Mumeiô zuihitsu ("Essays by a Nameless Old Man"). He described himself as a hard-drinking, rather dissolute artist. In the 1830s, he ran a brothel called the Wakatakeya in Nezu, though it soon burnt down.

Eisen designed a number of excellent surimono (privately issued prints) and erotic prints, as well as some fine landscapes. Among the latter, his contributions to the series Kisokaidô rokûjûkyû tsugi ("Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidô Road") in the 1830s is most often encountered (Eisen began the series, which was completed by Utagawa Hiroshige). Nevertheless, he is best known for his portrayals of women. By the 1820s Eisen had established himself as an important designer of bijinga ("pictures of beautiful women"). His finest works, particularly his okubi-e ("large-head pictures"), are now considered masterpieces of the Bunsei Period (1818-1830). These portraits of beauties and courtesans are much admired for their pronounced elements of realism and sensuality. Throughout this period he also produced large numbers of full-length portraits, many involving women of the Yoshiwara.

The print on the top right depicts the courtesan Nagatô of the Owariya brothel (Owariya uchi Nagatô), one design from the series Yoshiwara hakkei ("Eight Views of the Yoshiwara"), inscribed in the black cartouche. This is one of the ever-popular 'mitate' or analogues of the traditional eight views of Lake Biwa in Omi Province, in this case the Mii no banshô ("Evening Bell at Mii [Temple]"), identified at the far left of the large rectangular cartouche. The publisher's seal of Tsutaya Kichizô appears at the lower right, just below a 'kiwame' censor seal and above the artist's signature, Keisei Eisen ga.

Eisen_detail Nagatô is on public display during a promenade in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. It is early spring, as she walks beneath a flowering cherry tree enclosed by a bamboo fence on Yoshiwara's main street, the Naka-no-chô ("Middle Street"). Budding cherry trees were planted each year on the 25th day of the 2nd month in preparation for the famous annual cherry blossom festival held during the third month. Many spectators would come not only to enjoy the blossoming trees, but also to stand in the street or sit in the upper stories of teahouses to view the colorful spectacle of parading courtesans. Nagatô's name is composed of characters that suggest superiority and excellence (naga) at a rather high "ascent" () or price. Thus she is a high ranking courtesan, probably an 'ôiran'. Her robes and accessories are of the most elaborate and expensive type for the period. Six tortoise-shell hairpins jut out on either side of her coiffure, and a large obi is tied at the front in the manner of dress for courtesans. Most spectacular, of course, is the pattern of a fierce tiger standing on rocks amidst a waterfall (see detail on the lower right). Such kimono were prohibitively expensive, affordable by only the highest ranking courtesans (these robes were sometimes obtained as gifts from wealthy patrons). Eisen's vision of this Yoshiwara beauty exemplifies the standards of Edo style and fashion during the 1820s-30s when ornate elaboration of deportment and dress was considered the ideal for the most accomplished women of the pleasure quarters. © 2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Ota Museum of Art: Keisei Eisen ten botsugo 150 nen kinen ("Exhibition of Keisei Eisen: 150th Anniversary of his Death"). Tokyo 1997.
  • Segawa Seigle, C.: Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993, pp. 106-110.
  • Suzuki, J. and Oka, I.: Masterworks of Ukiyo-e: The Decadents (vol. 8). J. Bester (ed.). Tokyo: Kodansha, 1969, pp. 89-99.
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