|Torii Kiyonobu "Courtesan Painting a Screen" ca. 1711 Library of Congress (USA)|
Torii Kiyonobu (1664-1729) was one of the founders of the Torii school of painting. The Torii school, focused on creating billboards, handbills and other promotional materials for Tokyo's Kabuki theatre. Because such work was intended to attract attention, Kiyonubu's aesthetic evolved into a bold and graphic style, and was known for its use of aggressive, exuberant line with a lot of descriptive detail.
In this print we see a courtesan painting a screen decorated with willows, watched admiringly by a lounging man, and attended by a young servant who is grinding pigment. According to Japanese Women Artists 1600-1900, written by Patricia Fister, "One of the few professions in which intelligent women of the lower classes were encouraged to display artistic skills was that of the courtesan. There were many levels of courtesans; at the bottom were low-class prostitutes, but at the top were exceptionally talented women who were often skilled in traditional poetry and painting."
Interesting to note, the beginning of an upsurge of women in the arts took place at around this time because of the Kokugaku movement. This was a radical "native studies" movement, which aimed to go back to the roots of Japanese aesthetics primarily derived from Shinto, and throw off the foreign influences of Confuciansim and Buddhism. It has been posited that these two latter influences combined to create the peculiarly misogynistic culture prevalent in Japan. In ancient Japanese shinto-based texts, however, women were treated with much more respect and on an equal footing with men. Indeed, the imperial line of Japan traces its origin back to the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu! However, while the Kokugaku movement did increase respect for Japanese women in the arts for some time, it was relatively short-lived, arising in the 18th century and waning by the middle of the next century.