Ask any one of our docents and they will nod vigorously — our guests love paintings. Can’t get enough of them. Approximately 40 works are on display throughout the house at any given time, and what most of our guests don’t know is that the majority of the collection is tucked away in storage. I should clarify: when I say “tucked away” I don’t mean “shoved in a closet.” They are, of course, safely stored in a secure, climate controlled location. I promise.
Among the treasures housed in storage are two Japanese bijinga – which is the Japanese word for prints of beautiful women. The genre originates in the Edo period (1615-1868) when a confluence of wealthy transient workers (merchants, daimyo and craftsmen) created a new type of metropolis in Japan. With new wealth came a growing demand for pleasure, and from this demand arose two popular ways to spend ones fortune: kabuki theaters and in the newly-formed pleasure districts. During the late 17th century ukiyo-e artists (those who created woodblock prints) began to take notice of the superior beauty that radiated from the tayu, or high ranking courtesans. Female beauty would soon become a selling point for many artists. The soft, frail and youthfully sweet attractiveness of these Japanese women was a draw for many men. This is not to say that all images of women at the time are representative of the pleasure districts; you would be just as likely to find shopkeeper’s wives and daughters as subjects. However, most of the famous beauties found in these types of prints are courtesans.
The two prints in the Hermitage collection represent the spectrum of female imagery found throughout the Edo period. The first, signed by an artist named Shuncho who operated in the late 18th century to early 19th century, depicts two women at the bathhouse. One figure stands with a loosely wrapped yukata (summer cotton kimono) while the other kneels forward to bathe.
More sensual than sexual, this bathing scene is meant to highlight the beauty of simplicity. The elegant forms move naturally to disrobe and begin their washing. It is not a controlled studio scene, but rather an artist’s observation of femininity. Lines bend and curve to form hints of risqué imagery that are made subtle by a soft palette of colors. While it would be realistic to think that this type of print would stir up excitement from a male audience at the time, by today’s standards one can see the transient quality in observing what really is a mundane task.
The second print secreted away in storage is a more recognizable Japanese icon: that of a female in a full kimono. The subject exudes a type of beauty similar to those found at the bathhouse. Her attractiveness is based on her elegance. She stands in her coffee colored kimono with contrasting black obi (sash, belt) among falling snow. The weight of the figure, despite her garb, is as light as the snow that falls around her. She is but a breath of wind passing through a wintery landscape. In the mere moment when a passerby sees her they immediately become infatuated with her. The artist’s ability to capture this flash of desire provokes a response in the viewer. It also shows how the female figure can be equally sensual when fully clothed.
Both prints were stabilized and remounted by conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006. They have languished in storage since returning from New York, and I am thrilled to report that plans are being made for their eminent return to our walls!