Katsushika Ōi, or Eijo, as she was known to her family, was the daughter of the famous Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, and spent her life working with him as a tempestuous, obsessively creative duo. The pair were fluent in many mediums and styles, but this work is pure Ōi—a dramatic and carefully observed study of the interplay between light and shadow. This attention to light was rare in traditional Edo artwork. Shadows were rarely depicted at all, and night scenes were usually rendered in the same style as day scenes, the time of day instead signaled iconographically—a moon hanging in the background sky or lit candles on a table.
Like much of Ōi’s work, this scene is undated and unnamed. It’s often called Night Scene in the Yoshiwara, the British Museum refers to it as Display room in Yoshiwara at Night, but it’s home, the Ōta Memorial Museum of Art, provides its most descriptive title: Courtesans Showing Themselves to the Strollers through the Grille. Its date of creation is also vague. The Ōta Museum puts it between 1818 and 1860, and the British Museum more narrowly dates it between 1844-54. Why do we care? Because Ōi’s decades-long partnership with Hokusai ended in 1849 with the old master’s death, after which Ōi’s life became erratic and is largely undocumented. If painted after Hokusai’s death, the artwork’s departure from Edo norms and the role of the viewer as an outsider looking in, becomes even more poignant.
So let’s look closely. We, the viewer, stand outside a brothel in Yoshiwara, one of the three licensed yūkaku red-light districts in the city of Edo, now Tokyo. Light streams out from the glowing interior, casting slatted shadows on dark clad observers. 14 women are visible inside, wearing colorful clothing and elaborate upswept Yoko-hyogo ‘butterfly’ hairstyles, pinned with bamboo comb wings. They sit in ceremony, reading or in lost in low conversation, a far cry from the lurid red-light displays of Western cities. It’s a surprisingly quiet scene. The courtesans are bathed in warm light, peaceful and serene. The crowd, such that it is, seems more reverent than selacious. Men and women observe, dressed in simple clothes, faces obscured by the glow. Their postures are relaxed, they've been watching for a while. A child plays with a lamp.
A darker interpretation is provided at by Julie Nelson Davis, Professor of Art History at University of Pennsylvania. Davis calls Night Scene one of the most moving depictions of the yūkaku quarter, saying “She has turned the courtesans who were so often shown as fashion plates into anonymous figures, obscured by the lattice, capturing the pathos of their existence as indentured prostitutes.” In Edo Japan, pleasure quarters like these were carefully guarded, and the yūjo, 遊女, women of pleasure, were only allowed to leave the walls of their district once a year for hanami, the sacred custom of viewing the cherry blossoms.
The people are quiet, the light is soft, but step back and you see shadows cast by a cage.
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Reed Enger, "Night Scene in the Yoshiwara," in Obelisk Art History, Published January 20, 2016; last modified September 06, 2023, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/katsushika-oi/night-scene-in-the-yoshiwara/.