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Bijin, or beautiful woman, with a skull


    • currently in research collection

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  • Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum by Janice Katz

    Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum

    This beautifully rendered image of a courtesan with a skull is one of Watanabe Nangaku’s masterpieces. It has been published only twice before: in 1908 in Maruyama-ha gashū [Tajima Shi’ichi, Maruyama-ha gashū, vol. 2 (Tokyo, Shinbi shoin, 1908)] as belonging to the collection of Shimizu Hanbeii of Kyoto, and again in Nihonga Taisei in 1932 [Tōhō shoin, Maruyama-ha 2, Nihonga taisei vol. 13 (Tokyo, Tōhō shoin, 1932). fig. 90]. It is unclear exactly how it came into the possession of Jack Hillier, from whom the Ashmolean purchased the painting.

    Nangaku’s technical virtuosity is breathtaking, particularly in the rendering of the barefoot courtesan’s several layers of kimono. There is a subtle gradation of colour in the outer kimono from blue-grey to green at the hem, where a pattern of ivy is painted delicately in gold and white gofun. The next layer of kimono bears a design of butterflies, the next of scattered cherry blossoms, and the innermost layer is of a tie-dyed fabric with pink colouring. Tie-dyed strips of fabric used in the mounting of the painting pick up the pattern of the inner kimono. The beauty's bright red obi has flying dragons painted in gold with silver details. Animal glue has been applied over the strands of her hair to make them shine when hit by the light. All of this meticulous detail contrasts sharply to the bold ink strokes used to define the folds in the garments. The artist obviously revels in reminding us that this is a painted two-dimensional image: the patterns on the kimono are painted flat where the robes fold.

    The beauty bows her head and calmly looks at the skull, eerily painted with some of its teeth missing. The inscription above reads:

    No longer does she
    hold a mirror in her hands
    morning to night,
    since now she has
    a true reflection of herself.
    [ I am indebted to John Carpenter for providing the translation here]

    Watanabe Nangaku was a distinguished pupil of Maruyama Ōkyo. He has been known for his images of beauties and of carp, however, in reality his subject range is quite broad, including comic paintings of animals as well [for example, the Frog-lord's Procession in the Yamato Bunkakan is published in Minamoto and Sasaki, 47]. Nangaku’s stylistic influences are equally extensive, as he also spent three years in Edo where he was acquainted with Tani Bunchō and Bun'ichi (1787-1818), Sakai Hōitsu (1761-1828), and Ukiyo-e artists. In addition, he was known to have studied the paintings of Rimpa school artist and master of design Ōgata Kōrin (1658-1716). In turn, he is credited with bringing the Maruyama school style to the capital. His presence can be felt in the Maruyama-inspired fan of butterflies by Tani Bunchō earlier in this catalogue, as well as in the work of his Edo pupils Suzuki Nanrei (1775-1844) and Onishi Chinnen (1792-1851) to follow.

    The underside of the lid of the box of Beauty and Skull bears an authentication by Kunii Ōyō (1868-1923) (Kunii Ōbun’s son), a later Maruyama school artist in Kyoto who possessed and copied several sketches of Maruyama school images of beauties.

© 2013 University of Oxford - Ashmolean Museum