Kunisada: Beauty With Magic Fountain Toy and Fabric Background

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Artist: Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
Title: Fountain Toy 噴水の玩具)
Series: Atsurae ori tōsei jima (誂織當世島) “Modern Fashionable Striped Fabrics to Order”  Date: 1843-47

Unusual design of a married woman entertaining a young boy with a magic fountain, the background design featuring a coarse weave pattern. He looks up, astonished. She is wearing a fabulous kimono, with an eye-catching pattern, and the background is also a fabric pattern. 

This series features scenes of daily life, mainly women with children enjoying leisure activities; it also features fabrics woven with different fashionable stripe designs of the time, which are applied as background to the compositions. The last character of the series title “shima 島”, the character used for stripes in earlier period and refers to “an island”, developed to the character “shima 縞” in late Edo. It is said that stripe designs were introduced in ca. 18th century, probably from Nanban 南蛮, Spain or Portugal. In the  early Edo period, the horizontal stripe designs were popular among courtesans/geishas, but during the  mid-Edo period slenderness  became fashionable, and vertical stripe designs spread among women in town.

Here a woman, who is leisurely clad in kimono with a fabulous pattern, plays with a child, watching the fountain which is a type of magic trick that also must have been popular at the time. She holds a cloth underneath it, perhaps because the water must be hot to perform this trick, or perhaps to hide a hidden mechanism. She is a married woman or mother, who is depicted with shaved eyebrows and blackened teeth. 

As the other prints in the same series* show, the fashionable fabrics with woven-stripes became very popular, along with the introduction of cotton kimono material and some restrictions on luxurious life styles by the government. 

The background of this composition illustrates probably “man-suji 万筋”,” ten thousand threads”, a fine weaving, in which here dark brown for the vertical warp, and red for the horizontal weft are applied.

 Since Kunisada made the series “on order,” it must have been an order from a fabric dealer as an advertisement for his specialty fabrics. Also unique about this print is that it shows a type of magic trick as part of a bijin-ga image. See John Fiorillo’s terrific article in Andon 114 (can be read for free online) that talks about magic and acrobatic tricks in misemono-e.

*”With Toothpickくわえ楊枝”, “Wind Bell風鈴”, “Kinkatô Sweet Cookies金花糖”, “Baby with a Cloth(布をしゃぶる赤ちゃん)”

Condition: Very good impression, color and condition. Untrimmed and unbacked. Dimensions: ôban (36.8 x 25.5 cm)
Signature: Toyokuni ga     Publisher: Miyakozawa 都澤 (Tozawa)

Signed: Toyokuni upon Order (Ôju Toyokuni 應需豊国画) in Toshidama circle