On a snowy evening, a geisha attempts to shield herself with an umbrella while carefully navigating a path.
Unlike standard oban-sized prints which could be viewed individually and perhaps collected in an album, vertical diptychs (or kakemono-e, literally “hanging picture”) were designed to be hung on a wall or within a tokonoma (alcove reserved for displaying art), thereby mimicking the scale and impact of painted hanging scroll but available at a much more accessible price for the average consumer. Often already mounted as hanging scrolls by the publishers, kakemono-e such as this diptych by Eisen is the visual equivalent of a pin-up of a beautiful woman and a fashion poster at the same time. However, because they were displayed and rarely preserved in albums, kakemono-e were vulnerable to deterioration and extant impressions with any preservation of color are rare.
Part of what seems to be a small series of vertical oban diptychs of bijin-ga walking in the snow in different fashions and slightly different poses.
The Woodblock Print
This kakemono-e measures roughly 29″ by 9 5/8″ and is in very fine to excellent condition (based on comparable prints and age). Consisting of two vertical oban shown vertically, it is an eye-catching arrangement and design printed sometime between 1818 and 1830. Beautiful color without any noticeable discolorations or fading, it has the expected edge wear and the two oban are attached. Yellows and reds, most susceptible to fading, are intact; you can even see the shading above her eyes.
About the Artist
Keisai Eisen (渓斎 英泉, 1790–1848) was a renowned Japanese ukiyo-e artist who made significant contributions to the art form during the Edo period. Born in Edo (present-day Tokyo), Eisen initially trained as a kabuki actor before transitioning to the world of ukiyo-e. He studied under the influential artist Kikugawa Eizan, who played a crucial role in shaping Eisen’s artistic development (Marks, 2010).
One of Eisen’s notable influences was Kitagawa Utamaro, a prominent ukiyo-e artist. Eisen admired Utamaro’s elegant and sensual portrayals of women, which inspired his own works in the bijin-ga genre. Bijin-ga, or “pictures of beautiful women,” became a signature theme in Eisen’s art. He depicted courtesans, geishas, and women from different walks of life with grace and attention to detail (Nakano, 2017).
Eisen also delved into the world of shunga, a genre of erotic art. His shunga prints, known for their explicit and playful depictions of sexual encounters, showcased his skill in capturing intimate and sensual moments. Eisen’s shunga works often combined humor, wit, and delicate line work, contributing to the popularity of the genre during the Edo period (Marks, 2010).
In addition to bijin-ga and shunga, Eisen was highly skilled in creating surimono, which were privately commissioned prints. Surimono were typically smaller in size and featured intricate designs with various printing techniques, including embossing and metallic pigments. Eisen’s surimono prints demonstrated his meticulous attention to detail, refined compositions, and use of luxurious materials (Nakano, 2017).
While there is limited information about specific students who studied directly under Eisen, his artistic influence on subsequent generations of ukiyo-e artists is evident. His expressive portrayal of figures, innovative use of color, and ability to capture intimate scenes resonated with other printmakers. Notable artists like Utagawa Hiroshige and Utagawa Kunisada were influenced by Eisen’s style and incorporated elements of his techniques into their own works (Marks, 2010).
Eisen’s unique artistic style and contributions to bijin-ga, shunga, and surimono made him a celebrated ukiyo-e artist. His prints were highly sought after by collectors and patrons of the arts. Eisen’s ability to capture the essence of Edo society, his attention to detail, and his depiction of sensuality in his shunga prints all played a part in shaping his enduring legacy in the world of ukiyo-e (Nakano, 2017).
- Marks, A. (2010). Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers, and Masterworks: 1680-1900. Tuttle Publishing.
- Nakano, K. (2017). The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance. Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishers.