Featuring geisha and courtesans from the Edo pleasure-quarters, ‘bijin-ga’ offers a fascinating window into Japan’s floating world. Translating to mean "beautiful-person-pictures", it was one of the most popular genres in ukiyo-e and nearly every ukiyo-e artist designed bijin-ga at some point.
Illustrating the fashions of the day, bijin-ga was an art form that captured the essence of traditional beauty ideals. As time went on, representations of women changed from a slender, other-worldly elegance to become more fuller and sensual.
Much like the famous actors of the day, geisha and courtesans were seen as celebrities - and their lives were advertised as so. Artists depicted beauties in fantasized scenes; entertaining, hiding behind fans, brushing their hair, all the while swathed in ornately patterned kimono without a hair out of place. The reality of their lives, however, was not the case.
Photograph of young Geisha in training, 1910-20
There are distinct differences between geisha and courtesans. Courtesans, or ‘oiran’ were entertainers who were also prostitutes, educated in a range of skills from tea ceremony to calligraphy. Geisha on the other hand were not prostitutes, the term ‘geisha’ means “woman of art”. They were skilled in dancing, music and arts and would wear intricate hairstyles with a multitude of hair ornaments, magnificent kimono and painstakingly applied make-up.
Much of the allure of the beauties was about what’s hidden than what’s revealed and bijin-ga prints were used as tantalising enticements. Some of the greatest artists to ever produce bijin-ga prints were Utamaro, Yoshitoshi, Eisen and Chikanobu:
A courtesan holds up a fine, tortoise-shell hair comb to her face and runs her delicate fingers through the teeth. The comb (or ‘kushi’) is so fine that she is able to peer through it, represented with a wonderful translucent effect in the print itself.
A young geisha knocks a firefly down with her fan, then grips it between her teeth, leaving her hands free to capture the insect. She wears a light summer kimono to the party and her arm is visible through the elegant sheer fabric. We see several more insects illuminating the night sky behind her.
Against a backdrop of flowering cherry blossoms, a glorious courtesan picks up her robes and walks towards Mii-dera temple. The intricate design of her kimono shows multiple ornate patterns, cascading waterfalls and even a fierce Japanese tiger, suggestive of her high rank and wealth.
"Woman with fan" is a charming print taken from one of Chikanobu's finest series "Shin Bijin" or "True Beauty", featuring beautiful women in various poses and pursuits. The detailed illustration of the cherry blossom tree on her kimono is truly sumptuous; a robe fitting for a woman of such elegant, true beauty.
In this overtly sexual print, a courtesan applies red lipstick and looks into a mirror. Her lips part, as does her robe, revealing her ample breast. Here she paints both her lips in the traditional ‘flowerbud’ style, using rouge made from the safflower plant, harvested in Japan’s Yamagata mountains.
A woman holds up a fine sheet of black, spotted fabric to her face. The cloth is so fine that she is able to peer through it, represented with a wonderful translucent effect in the print itself. Here, the woman's beauty is glimpsed through the transparent fabric before her face.
Click here to browse our stunning collection of bijin-ga and explore the lives of these timeless beauties further.