Five Beautiful Women, 1804-18, Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760-1849, hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, 71 x 18 1/4 in., Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 56.246. Currently on view in LUMINOUS, special exhibition galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.

Hattie Branch, Blakemore Intern, brings us a look at the work of Katsushika Hokusai.

Long before Hokusai published his famous The Great Wave of Kanagawa, he was an emerging artist, independent of any established school and struggling to get by. A popular account tells that one day the widow of Kunisada, a former leading print artist, commissioned a painting from Hokusai. She was so impressed with the results that she paid him far more than he expected. The stunned Hokusai determined to perfect his technique so that he could support his family with painting commissions.

Five Beautiful Women comes from the first half of Hokusai’s career when he was building his reputation as a producer of luxury arts for an elite audience. Here he makes the familiar subject of beautiful women fresh and exciting by arranging them vertically. The drapery of their luxurious raiment flows from one to the next like a tumbling waterfall of silk. His unique arrangement turns an otherwise static subject into an invitingly dynamic composition.

At the time Hokusai was working, Edo’s (now Tokyo) popular culture was dominated by salon gatherings of wealthy merchants, samurai, poets, and artists. At a salon, the host would customarily hang a scroll painting, like Five Beautiful Women, in a display alcove. Elegant works of art both established an atmosphere of cultural sophistication, and provided fodder for witty repartee. Party-goers could have speculated on the classification of the five women, and debated the relative merits of the “types” they represent. They are now usually identified as either five social classes (top to bottom: a noble woman, a wealthy merchant’s daughter, a house servant to the high class, a courtesan, and a shop woman) or the five Confucian feminine virtues (poetry, flower arranging, domesticity, entertainment, and literacy).

More than just a producer of landscapes, through his long career Hokusai touched on most every genre, and mastered all that caught his interest. Five Beautiful Women exemplifies his masterful painting of women, and makes palpable why his work was in such high demand.

Five Beautiful Women, 1804-18, Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760-1849, hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, 71 x 18 1/4 in., Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 56.246. Currently on view in LUMINOUS, special exhibition galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.

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