The Courtesan Moshio Reading a Book


Not on view

This painting by an unknown artist may be considered an imaginary depiction of Moshio, a courtesan of the Shimabara pleasure district in Kyoto. Above her figure a poem inscribed in syllabic kana calligraphy was brushed in the chirashi gaki (scattered writing) mode, with the vertical lines of text beginning at different heights on the silk. Adding to the harmony of the composition, the placement of the calligraphy and the empty space between the two horizontal "registers" of writing appear to mimic the shape of the reclining woman. The calligraphy has been thought to be by her hand. The poem is a verse by the Heian-period poet-scholar-calligrapher Fujiwara Teika (1162–1241).

The young woman, her hair twisted up into a modified gosho-fū looped chignon, lies with her head propped on one hand in a pensive pose, and the fan designs on her kimono bear autumn motifs of reeds and grasses. She reads a book that is open on the floor before her, by the light of a single lamp. The calligraphy, in delicate, curvilinear script, indicates that the inscriber—whether or not the subject of the painting—was a person of some education and refinement. It reads:

ふてのすさびにかよふ おもかけ

Nushi ya tare
minu yo no iro o
fude no susabi ni
ukabu omokage

Who are you, my lady?
Sketched with playful brush
your visage resembles
someone I once knew
in an age long past.
[Translated by John Carpenter]

The Courtesan Moshio Reading a Book, Unidentified Artist, ca. 1655–61, Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, Japan

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