Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820), the owner of one of a few Fukagawa geisha portraits in print was the son of an Edo publisher and bookseller. Shigemasa was certainly one of the leading print designers of his time. Yet his works are less familiar than they deserve to be, given their obvious charm and finely balanced compositions, often of a notable simplicity.
Among Shigemasa’s masterpieces are a number of full-length portraits of geisha. This format print depicts two geisha from Fukagawa, an area outside of Edo city magistrates southeast of the Sumida River. Fukagawa was a very popular, unlicensed pleasure district, the best of those in competition with the government-sanctioned.
Fukagawa courtesans worked under yobidashi (a “summoning” arrangement) whereby they were sent to service their customers at restaurants, teahouses, and inns near the river. They were known for their own brand of style and sophistication. Fukagawa geisha, such as the two portrayed by Shigemasa, was also known as Tatsumi geisha, considered especially seductive and accomplished in the arts of dance, musicianship, and conversation. As in Shigemasa’s print, they typically wore understated kimono and usually went barefoot, unlike other geisha who usually wear the tabi (a type of split-socks).
This design is from the series Toto no bijin no zu (“Pictures of Beauties from the East”), circa late 1770s.