The Courtesan Moshio Reading a Book

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

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Oiran were elite Japanese courtesans celebrated for their beauty, style, and literary refinement. Individual courtesans often gained fame for their calligraphy, poetry, and painting. Moshio, the oiran depicted in this silk scroll, was a courtesan of the Shimabara pleasure district in Kyoto. She is reading a book, communicating her literary refinement. Above her head, someone has inscribed a poem in Japanese calligraphy, reading “Who are you, my lady?/ Sketched with playful brush/ your visage resembles/ someone I once knew/ in an age long past” (translation by John Carpenter). Art historians surmise that the unknown artist likely painted Moshio by memory, but some have speculated that Moshio herself wrote the calligraphy. We can imagine Moshio’s patrons and admirers treasuring such an image, especially if the writing is in her hand. Learn more about the intellectual lives of Edo oiran.

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