Ukiyo-e & Maiko Portraits

I know I promised a while back on Twitter to write about paintings of Maiko and the artists who painted them… So with no further ado, let’s dive straight in!

Ukiyo-e paintings(浮世絵).
Ukiyo-e (literally: portraits of the floating world) is a genre of art that flourished in the Edo period as a result of the long-waited peace and prosperity. That’s when Japan was finally unified and ruled with a relatively centralised state power. In the absence of war, arts, entertainment and the economy started to flourish; it was also when kabuki and the profession of Geisha began.

If I remember correctly, the earliest Ukiyo-e artist who was famous for “beauty portraits”(美人画)was Katsushika Hokusai’s(葛飾北斎) daughter: Katsushika Oui(葛飾応為). Her father Hokusai is the one who created the genre of Ukiyo-e. He painted, I’m sure you have seen it somewhere, this:

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

And of course, the earliest tentacle erotica: (´・////・`)

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife
I’d write a long blog about erotic shunga, netsuke toys and historical dildos, but they can wait for now…

Regardless of the amount of shunga Hokusai painted, he wasn’t exactly good at “beauty portraits”. He used to say if he were to compete with his daughter Oui on “beauty portraits”, he’d surely lose. This is Oui’s style:


Now you all probably agree with Hokusai;)

Let’s fast-forward 300 years to have a look on how Ukiyo-e evolved from Oui’s “beauty portraits”.


Here are three of my favourite modern and contemporary Ukiyo-e painters who paint Maiko:

1. Shimura Tatsumi (志村立美) 1907~1980

Pale, calm and elegant.

His Maiko are the very ideal of traditional Japanese feminine beauty – quiet, shy, almost absent of facial expression, yet their eyes speak.

This is also the rule of traditional dance – we show no facial expression so that every emotion can be visualised and amplified by subtle movements.


This one is so far my favourite. Look carefully, what do you think she’s feeling?

Usually we sense another person’s negative emotions instantly through a frowning look, for example, the ‘wrinkle’ between the eyebrows (眉間の皺). This painting is known for the lack of obvious facial emotion indicators but somehow it still perfectly conveys the complexity of her emotions.

This is another reason I love his paintings: they are loyal to life’s obscurity.


2. Ito Shinsui(伊東深水) 1898~1972

Warm, real and humanly.

Shinsui is very famous for his “beauty portraits” after WW2. Due to his popularity, many of his originals were made into replicas, some of them are still circulating at auctions.



His portraits are more realistic in terms of details (kimono, belt, belt buckle, collar, obi…) and facial expressions. They look very real that I can almost guess which atelier made the kanzashi/collar/kimono. The warm tone and gentle expressions give Shinsui’s Maiko a humanised touch – they no longer seem unreachable yet still hold themselves in great solemness.

*Another secret reason why I like his paintings is because he painted a girl who look just like me;) I’ll tell you about it when we meet…


3. Shimizu Tatsuzo(清水達三)1936~now

Cute…… Awfully awfully cute – the Sailor Moon in traditional Japanese painting!

Shimizu is the youngest of the three. I actually only heard about him recently from a gentleman’s recommendation. His maiko is something I have never seen before…



I quite enjoy watching the ‘anime’ touch on traditional paintings. It’s playful, lovable and even a bit romantic. What used to be clear lines and colour patches is replaced with hues and ‘liquidised’ sensations.


To some extend, the three artists represent a development curve of traditional Ukiyo-e paintings that branched out reaching for modern values and expressions, whether it’s realism or pop culture. This curve is just like how the profession of Geisha developed through wars and political revolutions – abolished mizuage after WW2; wearing more leather zori than okobo…

We know the main goal is to live as the vessel of a proud tradition, yet to adapt and absorb is perhaps what fundamentally makes a tradition thrive…


P.S. Who’s looking forward to shunga, netsuke toys and historical dildos ψ(`∀´)ψケケケ
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Until we meet…

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