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A couple of weeks ago I took a meander around the Met to see what new stuff was hanging–and what did I find? Lots of new courtesans! In particular, there is now a whole gallery of Japanese paintings of beautiful women–including a number of courtesans, such as this woman in a scroll from the 1780s by Isoda Koryusai. This painting seems to show the main street of the Yoshiwara, the ‘pleasure quarter’ of the city of Edo (modern Tokyo). A courtesan is promenading with her two assistants (or perhaps apprentices). She is the height of fashion, or perhaps overdone—as was apparently typical of these women—wearing multiple layers of elaborate kimonos, and the huge clogs which were typical of courtesans–clogs which made it impossible to walk naturally (a custom that reminds me of Chinese foot-binding).


Also, her obi (the sash that ties a kimono) is tied in the front, a sure sign of a courtesan. Other women tied their obi in the back, but courtesans tied it in front, so it would be easier to undo.  In other words, this is what marks her as potentially available. Japanese courtesans were similar to Western ones in many ways: they too needed to be courted, rather than simply paid; they also were known not only for their beauty but also for their artistic skills, such as skill at performing the tea ceremony, playing various instruments, and doing calligraphy.  They are different from Western ones of the same period (the 18th century) in that their portrayal is standardized:  you can’t recognize the individual women. I have always talked about Japanese courtesans in the introduction to the Shady Ladies tour. It’s nice of the Met to have given me some wonderful images of them to include, at least for the rest of the summer.

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Shady Ladies Women's History

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