A Young Woman with a Cage of Fireflies

Artist: Shiba Kōkan 司馬江漢 (1747-1818)
Historical period(s)
Edo period, ca. 1770
Color on silk panel
H x W (image): 93.4 × 33 cm (36 3/4 × 13 in)
Credit Line
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hanging scroll

Edo period (1615 - 1868), firefly, garden, Japan, kakemono, moon, night, ukiyo-e, woman

To 1898
Edward S. Hull Jr., New York to 1898 [1]

From 1898 to 1919
Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), purchased from Edward S. Hull Jr. in 1898 [2]

From 1920
Freer Gallery of Art, gift of Charles Lang Freer in 1920 [3]


[1] See Original Kakemono List, L. 154, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Edward S. Hull Jr. was Ernest Francisco Fenollosa’s (1853-1908) lawyer. Hull often acted as an agent, facilitating purchases of objects consigned to him by Fenollosa, as well as purchases of objects consigned to him by Fenollosa's well-known associate, Bunshichi Kobayashi (see correspondence, Hull to Freer, 1898-1900, as well as invoices from E.S. Hull Jr., 1898-1900, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives). See also, Ingrid Larsen, "'Don’t Send Ming or Later Pictures': Charles Lang Freer and the First Major Collection of Chinese Painting in an American Museum," Ars Orientalis vol. 40 (2011), pgs. 15 and 34. See further, Thomas Lawton and Linda Merrill, Freer: A Legacy of Art, (Washington, DC and New York: Freer Gallery of Art and H. N. Abrams, 1993), pgs. 133-134.

[2] See note 1.

[3] The original deed of Charles Lang Freer's gift was signed in 1906. The collection was received in 1920 upon the completion of the Freer Gallery.

Previous Owner(s) and Custodian(s)

Edward S. Hull Jr. (C.L. Freer source)
Charles Lang Freer 1854-1919


Because Kokan's reputation rests on his immersion in Western learning and mastery of European painting techniques and copperplate printing, his painting of a beauty in the traditional ukiyo-e style is rare and confounds expectations. In creating a beauty with a large head and delicately proportioned limbs, Kokan emulates the very popular style of Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770). Harunobu's paintings and prints were especially fashionable in the 1760s.  Kokan's painting here evokes the dense atmosphere of a summer night, as a woman examines a caged firefly.

Kokan wrote in his own diary that he forged Harunobu paintings after the master's death. This painting bears the Harunobu seal and is signed Shotei Harushige, a name bestowed on Kokan by Harunobu. By 1774 Kokan had turned his considerable gifts to Western astronomy, natural science, and realistic painting in the Western style. 

Kokan's drive to create realistic images is seen in nascent form in this painting. For it he used an ancient Buddhist painting technique of applying pigment to both the front and back of the silk support, creating an illusion of delicate dimensionality. For example, the beauty's underrobe, seen through a semitransparent outer garment is actually painted on the backside of the silk.

Published References
  • Harold P. Stern. Ukiyo-e Painting: Freer Gallery of Art Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition. Exh. cat. Washington and Baltimore, 1973. cat. 54, pp. 138-141.
Collection Area(s)
Japanese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
CC0 - Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

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