This painting belongs to a tradition of single-figure painting, which started in the 1660s and continued throughout the history of ukiyo-e. Hishikawa Moronobu was a prolific artist, but his paintings are rare. This barefoot beauty wears a magnificent long-sleeved, green outer robe with a design of cherry blossoms. She lifts her robe with her right hand and touches her collar with her left--a coquettish posture intended to attract a male gaze. Her undergarment was painted with silver pigment, now tarnished to black.
Moronobu's Edocentric style, choice of subjects and array of techniques and formats influenced all later artists of ukiyo-e. Building on his success as a book illustrator, as most ukiyo-e artists began their careers, he established himself as a painter and opened his own studio close to the theater district and the publishers of his books and sheet prints in downtown Edo. Moronobu's books, prints and paintings catered to all groups, but his luxurious paintings went to affluent cognoscenti--most samurai--of the pleasure quarter of around 1690.
The Chinese ballad inscribed on this painting is by Li Yannian (c. 140-87 BCE), a Han-dynasty court musician and the brother of the beautiful Lady Li, an entertainer. He sang her praises before the Emperor Wu. The short verse, written in irregular, five-syllable meter, is a transitional form between a song or ballad (yuefu) and poetry (shi). Burton Watson translates the poem in his Courtier and Commoner in Ancient China: Selections from the History of the Former Han [by Pan Gu] (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), p. 247:
Beautiful lady in a northern land,
standing alone, none in the world like her,
a single glance and she upsets a city,
a second glance, she upsets the state!
Not that I don't know she upsets states and cities,
but one so lovely you'll never find again!
This led to the emperor meeting the sister and taking her as one of his favorite concubines.
In Edo-period popular culture, keisei (upsets a city, or castle-toppler) and keikoku (upsets the state), were synonyms for courtesan.
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