The Courtesan Takao

Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川広重 (1797-1858)
Historical period(s)
Edo period, ca. 1840
Color and gold on silk panel
H x W (image): 100.8 × 42.6 cm (39 11/16 × 16 3/4 in)
Credit Line
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hanging scroll

bird, courtesan, Edo period (1615 - 1868), Japan, kakemono, ukiyo-e, woman
Provenance research underway.

This image of a beauty wrapped in an autumn maple leaf-patterned kimono with a bird streaking through the sky is an unmistakable reference to the courtesan Takao.  From the mid-seventeenth through the mid-eighteenth century, eleven courtesans bore the sobriquet of Takao.  The second Takao, however, who was active in the mid-1650s,  was renowned for her skills in seducing rich and powerful patrons. Her ultimate conquest, the daimyo of Sendai, Date Tsunamune (1640-1711), purchased her freedom from brothel life, and they remained together until her death.

A poem of  passionate longing traditionally attributed to Takao mentions the hototogisu (Cuculus poliocephalus, often translated as cuckoo) that flies over Komagata. Tsunamune had a residence in the Komagata area of Asakusa in Edo. The hototogisu is a bird associated with the fourth lunar month and the vicissitudes of love. Takao is also the name of a site near Kyoto famous for its resplendant autumn foliage, thus the artist makes associations between the courtesan's name, her kimono pattern, and the Kyoto site.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries apocryphal stories of Takao were the grist for pulp fiction and kabuki script writers. While associated with Takao, Tsunamune was involved in a succession struggle within the Sendai domain. In 1660 the shogunate condemned him for his licentiousness--probably a politically motivated charge with some basis in truth--and as a penalty Tsunamune had to pay for the construction of a large section of the Edo castle's moat. Assassinations and other political intrigues continued for several years, giving storytellers in later years further reason to cast Tsunamume in a villainous image suitable for popular entertainment. One of the most persistent tales reports that he murdered Takao.

This painting was done by Hiroshige in the early 1840s and has been widely regarded for more than a century as a superlative example of his forays into the bijin (beautiful women) genre.

Published References
  • Harold P. Stern. Ukiyo-e Painting: Freer Gallery of Art Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition. Exh. cat. Washington and Baltimore, 1973. cat. 115, pp. 298-299.
Collection Area(s)
Japanese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
CC0 - Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

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