Asian Art

Okumura Masanobu (Japanese, ca. 1686 - 1764)
Courtesan Striking a Shuttlecock with a Battledore, Edo period, 1710s
Woodblock print, ink on paper
25 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (65.2 x 32.2 cm)
Mary A. Ainsworth Bequest, 1950
AMAM 1950.202

The lithe, graceful lines and engaging composition of this early work by Okumura Masanobu reveal why he is considered to have been one of the most innovative and important printmakers in eighteenth-century Japan.

Little is known about Masanobu's background or early training. Some have speculated that he taught himself the art of woodblock-print design, but even his earliest prints of 1701 are so confident and skillful that it seems likely he had some formal instruction.1 Although most of Masanobu's early prints were issued in album format, he also designed several larger single images in the kakemono, or "hanging scroll" format. This print, which may be the only copy of the design left in existence, belongs to the latter category. The subject is a courtesan, elegantly attired in a kimono decorated with poetic verses written in calligraphic script. The somewhat frenetic energy of the calligraphy enhances the dynamic lines of her robe as she turns to strike the shuttlecock, thus creating a pleasing tension between her figure and the narrow straight-edged space she fills. Such imaginative designs, combined with a masterful control of form and composition, remained hallmarks of Masanobu's prints throughout his long career.

The elegant and playful subject of this print suggests that it was originally created to be sold in the shop of Masanobu's publisher, who is identified by a seal on the print as Nishimura of Komagome.2

Komagome was a village on the outskirts of Edo (modern Tôkyô), along the Kisokaidô Road leading to Kyôto. A publishing house in this town would have been perfectly situated to take advantage of the business and tourist trade between Japan's two major cities, selling images recording the delights of the capital as souvenirs for travelers going home, or as mementos for those setting out on a long journey.

The subject of this print was undoubtedly intended to remind its buyers of the Yoshiwara, Edo's famous licensed quarter. However, the poetic phrases on the courtesan's robes, which recall verses from the Heian period (794-1185), may have been chosen to attract Kyôto customers as well. (Kyôto was the capital of Japan during the Heian period.)

Masanobu's signature, in which he calls himself a "Yamato-style painter from Tobu," would also have appealed to buyers from both cities, since Kyôto was closely associated with Yamato-style painting, while the name Tobu identified the print as a product of Edo.

C. Mason

The first concrete fact of Okumura Masanobu's existence is an album of 1701, in which he reworked a series of prints that had been designed by Torii Kiyonobu (1664-1729) the previous year. During the next twenty years, Masanobu produced a number of albums and single-sheet prints for several different publishers in Edo. In the 1720s, he took the then unusual step of opening his own publishing house. This gave him greater creative control over his work, and allowed him to keep the lion's share of the profits from prints he designed.

Masanobu's career spanned the most important evolutionary phase in Japanese printmaking, from monochrome prints to simple two-color prints to full-color wooblock prints. With every new technical development, Masanobu was part of the creative vanguard, and he was also known as an innovator in subjects and compositions. Masanobu does not seem to have had many direct followers, although his pupil and perhaps adopted son, Okumura Toshinobu (active ca. 1717-1750), is also recognized as one of the leading printmakers of the eighteenth century.

General References
Lane, Richard. Masters of the Japanese Print. Garden City, N.Y., 1962, pp. 102-24.

Roberts, Laurance P. A Dictionary of Japanese Artists. New York, 1976, p. 103.

Bequest of Mary A. Ainsworth (OC 1889), Moline, Illinois, 1950


Keyes, Roger. Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Catalogue of the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection. Oberlin, 1984, pp. 20-21, pl. 2.

Technical Data
This woodblock print, printed in black ink on paper, is in the kakemono format. It is in good condition, with some fading and wear. It is signed in the lower left corner, with one seal of the artist ("Masanobu"), and one publisher's seal ("Nishimura of Komagome").

1. A sheet from Masanobu's first album of 1701 is reproduced in Richard Lane, Masters of the Japanese Print (Garden City, N.Y., 1962), p. 104.

2. This print is discussed in the context of early Japanese print publishing in Roger Keyes, Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Catalogue of the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection (Oberlin, 1984), pp. 20-21.