Asia Society

Hokusai and His Circle: The Literary Network

Five Beauties
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849)
Five Beauties
ca. 1805–13
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk
86.4 x 34.3 cm
Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 56.246

In this luxury commission, Hokusai accommodates five figures in a single composition by arranging them vertically and connecting them with drapery. Hokusai arranges the women in an intriguing hierarchy. At the top, a woman in an elegant robe with iris-marsh motif, an allusion to the Heian-period Tales of Ise, is poised with writing brush, symbolizing the importance of calligraphy for a woman of the courtier classes. Just below, the unmarried daughter of a wealthy merchant family arranges flowers in a wicker basket. The woman with formal headwear is in the employ of a samurai family. Below her, a courtesan sits immodestly in her ostentatious attire. At the bottom, the widow of a merchant (with plucked eyebrows and narrow-sleeved robes of somber color) reads a book, symbolizing literacy.

Photo: © Seattle Art Museum