£15,000 - £25,000

+ Buyers Premium



She stands smiling, holding her kosode (inner kimono) with her left hand, her other hand gracefully resting on her hip, painted in red, orange, yellow, turquoise, green and black enamels, the kosode with an amime (fishing net) pattern and small flowers cascading upon her breast, a black obi (belt) loosely tied at her waist, her uchikake (outer kimono) with orange and yellow prunus blossoms with green and blue leaves and scrolling tendrils, her hair elegantly tied up in the gosho mage style, 39cm.

Cf. H Seizo, Nihon no Toji, vol.9, Kakiemon, pls.30-31, 161-166; I Motosuke, Genshoku Nihon no Meito, Ko-Imari to Kakiemon, pl.68; S Jenyns, Japanese Porcelain, pl.63B, and Genruyu kara gendai made Kakiemon no sekai ten, p.47, pl.54, for other figures of bijin from the same model but decorated with different patterns. 


The collapse of the Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1644 and the civil war that followed triggered an unprecedented crisis in the Jingdezhen kilns, putting an end to porcelain production. The export of Chinese ceramics to Japan gradually ceased and as a result, Japanese kilns were compelled to produce alternative wares to satisfy the domestic demand. Ceramic factories shifted from Korean aesthetics to a more Chinese style. A number of Chinese potters had also fled their country to seek refuge in Japan, bringing with them advanced technical knowledge of porcelain production. One of the most important innovations to Japanese ceramics was the introduction of polychrome overglaze enamels on a milky white ground.

The kilns near Arita in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, started to exploit the kaolin clay deposits discovered nearby and necessary for the production of pure white porcelain. Many of the
moulds used for these figures of bijin have been excavated from Akaemachi, the enamellers' quarter in central Arita. The Kakiemon family of decorators are thought to have been the first to master the
technique, thus giving it its name. 

Japan in the 17th century was undergoing a period of prosperity, with blooming trade and cities increasing in size and number. It is said that two thirds of the population of Edo (Tokyo) were male and perhaps as a consequence of this, pleasure quarters were also thriving. The entertainment industry, also known as the 'floating world' or ukiyo, contributed to the emergence of a new iconography celebrating the beauty of courtesans and actors, most famously in ukiyo-e woodblock
prints. Porcelain figures of women such as this one were referred to as 'Kanbun Beauties' after the Kanbun era (1661-1673). Although her pose is demure and the contours of her body are obscured by the many layers she wears, this sophisticated lady is undoubtedly a high-rank courtesan. Her complex robes and gosho mage hairstyle, then popular amongst ladies of the Imperial court and of the red-light districts, demonstrate that she was a fashion icon of the time.

Although a number of these porcelain bijin are known to have been made from the same moulds, every one of them is enamelled with a unique design, suggesting the painters were given free reign to decorate them. The sources for these designs are unknown, but one theory is that they were inspired by the aesthetics of ukiyo ningyo (dolls of courtesans) and joruri (puppets). Paintings from the Kano and Tosa Schools depicting beauties may have provided the enamellers with another source of inspiration. The 17th century also witnessed the growth of townspeople as wealthy patrons who favoured genre painting, and depictions of the special pleasures of ukiyo were a common type of commission. Books of textile patterns (hiinagata-bon) most likely provided another source of inspiration for the Kakiemon bijin' outfits. 

As the crisis in China deepened, the Qing government decided to prohibit international trade and so merchants of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) had to find another source for their porcelain
trade. After inspecting the Arita kilns in 1659, they started the export of local porcelain to Europe from the trading port of Nagasaki. The elegant ware, with bright multicoloured patterns on a pure white ground, presented an exciting alternative to the centuries of blue and white ceramic and the dark hues of marble, lacquer and ebony then favoured in many interiors. Kakiemon bijin and other figures (such as the boy on a drum, lot 975) became highlights of porcelain displays in castles and
palaces across Europe. England in particular had an insatiable appetite for the new ware and Queen Mary (1662-1694) became a fervent collector, displaying her prized pieces in the grand rooms of
Hampton Palace. A craze for interior decorating emulating the William and Mary style developed and many fashionable ladies were said to have ruined their families with the enormous expenses of
their porcelain collecting.

The peak for Arita kilns lasted from the 1650s to the 1680s and came to an end in the late 1690s. The downturn on the domestic market is possibly due to the developing taste for Nabeshima ware, produced in the same area during this period. In Europe, Japanese porcelain had pride of place in many collections for a period of 85 years. This period extended between 1659, when the VOC first imported Kakiemon ware, and 1745, when European factories such as Meissen, Bow and Chelsea
started imitating Japanese aesthetics. Traditional patterns such as 'squirrel and gourd', 'dragon and tiger' and 'quail' were successfully copied, so much so that the Japanese originals became obsolete.
Curiously, European porcelain factories did not attempt to produce their version of Kakiemon bijin and by the mid-18th century, the stylish courtesan had fallen out of fashion, in Japan and abroad.