Masterpiece Stories

Painting of the Week: Kikukawa Eizan, The Courtesan Hinaaya of the Chōji House

Urvi Chheda 24 May 2020 min Read

Vincent and Theo van Gogh, the close-knit brothers, extensively collected Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. Van Gogh had already bought a few in Antwerp before arriving in Paris. However, by the mid 19th century, Paris had already been swept by the tantalizing vogue of Japonisme. Japonisme, which is defined as artifacts and accessories from Japan, was coined by Philippe Burty in 1872. Furthermore, the extent of its influence was so great that it started a new culture of French prints. Almost everyone collected French prints and was proud to possess them. The painting of week, The Courtesan Hinaaya of the Chōji House by Kikukawa Eizan, is one of the woodblock prints from the brothers' collection in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It belongs to the series Courtesans Representing the Seven Gods of Luck.

Kikukawa Eizan, The Courtesan Hinaaya of the Chōji House, from the series Courtesans Representing the Seven Gods of Luck, 1814-1817, 38 cm x 25.9 cm, Credit Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Kikukawa Eizan, The Courtesan Hinaaya of the Chōji House, from the series Courtesans Representing the Seven Gods of Luck, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Kikukawa Eizan

Kikukawa Eizan (1787 -1867) designed this ukiyo-e styled woodblock print. He studied under his father Eiji, who was a painter of Kano school and was a student to Suzuki Nanrei of Shijo school. Having created many ukiyo-e styled woodblock prints, depicting beautiful courtesans he later transitioned to painting in 1830.

The Courtesan Hinaaya of the Chōji House

The Courtesan Hinaaya of the Choji House depicts a female courtesan showing her cleavage, and holding a presumably ceramic cup of tea. The woman is kneeling and leaning towards a table, while she stares to the side. Her hand rests on the table, alongside a bowl of fish. The composition of the print has a diagonal allignment. 

The hairpiece, kimono, stylized contours, and calligraphic elements were persistent themes in Japanese prints for centuries. Moreover, the kimono does not appear to be flamboyant and ornate. Thus (according to the ranking system of pleasure quarters) we can deduce that this courtesan belongs to lower stratum. To put it simply, she is a low-ranking prostitute. The teenage and low-ranking courtesans had to follow the commands of the higher-ranked. Besides, they trained them in refined arts, etiquette, and other virtues.

In reality, the high-ranking courtesans and low-ranking prostitutes all suffered from venereal disease and the hardships of bearing unwanted children. The courtesans in particular wore toxic lead makeup to whiten their faces, necks, hands, and feet. Many prostitutes died by age 20.

Hix. L. (2015, March 23). Sex and Suffering: The Tragic Life of the Courtesan in Japan's Floating World

The Culture of Courtesans in the Edo Period of Japan

In the 8th century, women in Japan served as emperors and managed the nation. However, with the passing of time, the status of women declined up to the Edo period (1603 - 1868). They were subjugated and only permitted to perform domestic chores. The Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo period imposed the tenets of Confucius. Also, to deliver a vent for the sexual pursuits of men which were deeply entrenched at the time, the shogun amended the provision of specific neighborhood regions known as pleasure quarters. These pleasure quarters contributed considerably to the revenue of the autocratic government. 

Farmers and workers who could not afford to feed their families sold their daughters to these quarters. Moreover, the quarters imposed massive debts on the courtesans. Although these prostitutes lived in undesirable conditions, the senior residents made them learn soft-skills and hone their talents. This elite capability would suit the visiting daimyos (feudal lords), samurais, and rich landlords. Also, this practice leveled them in drawing the clientele in with titillating conversations. The hierarchy within pleasure quarters was ruthless. Consequently, the most senior courtesan had spacious rooms and flaunted expensive, multi-layered kimonos.

Yoshiwara, Shinomachi, Shimbara, Choji, among others, were various pleasure quarters in which artists were appointed to produce beautiful woodblock prints of prostitutes. These woodblock prints not only made money but also served as a medium to run this lucrative pimp-businesses.

In the medieval period, Japanese Buddhist traditions, particularly among the lower classes, embraced casual sex and promiscuity. Even the myth of Japan’s creation involved two gods making love, which became part of the justification for selling girls into prostitution. Male promiscuity often extended to sex with other men, which was considered normal.

Hix. L. (2015, March 23). Sex and Suffering: The Tragic Life of the Courtesan in Japan's Floating World

Seven Gods of Luck

In this print, the courtesan represents the Seven Gods of Luck. According to Japanese mythology, seven gods of luck bring immense wealth, longevity, fortune, prosperity, and abundance. The seven gods of luck, namely are Ebisu, Hotei, Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Daikokuten, Jurōjin, and Fukurokuju. There are many studies that compare their similarities with the Chinese and Indian gods. However, a courtesan in a godly representation gives one the idea of giving a guilt-free and sacred status to the pleasure quarters. It was therefore a way to morally elevate the promiscuity prevalent in that era. To an extent, a few prints also depict an anthropomorphic image of Buddha with courtesans in the Edo period.

Van Gogh collected numerous ukiyo-e prints to inspire as well as refine the compositional features for his impressionist paintings. He would pin them to the wall of his home in Antwerp. One of his paintings, Bridge in the Rain, obviously replicates the print, Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake designed by Utagawa Hiroshige.

Vincent van Gogh, Courtesan (after Eisen), October-November 1887, oil on cotton, 100.7 cm x 60.7 cm, Credits (obliged to state): Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Vincent van Gogh, Courtesan (after Eisen), October-November 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

"Van Gogh based this painting on a woodcut by the Japanese artist Kesai Eisen. The print was reproduced on the cover of the magazine Paris illustré in 1886. Van Gogh used a grid to copy and enlarge the Japanese figure. He used bright colors and bold outlines as if it were a woodcut."

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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