Kubo Shunman
Scene in Front of a Poet’s House at Night

Publisher: Fushi-zen (Fushimiya Zenroku); engraver’s seal: Fuji Kazumune kō; egoyomi, ōban triptych, 37.5 x 75,5 cm; nishiki-e (benigirai-e) with shōmenzuri

This elegant triptych, rarely found complete, is one of the most famous Japanese prints. It shows passers-by in front of the house of a poet who is in conversation with his guests on the upper floor. This may be Rokujuen, the son of the ukiyo-e master Ishikawa Toyonobu and Shunman’s own poetry teacher. Each of the three prints is illuminated by its own source of light. This sophisticated print is characterized by the fact that no red was used (benigirai-e).

Provenance: John Mellor (Sotheby’s, London, July 1963)
Riese Collection #49

This elegant design is one of the most famous of all Japanese prints, and is rarely found complete. It shows a group of young men and women in the street outside the dwelling of a poetry master. The poet is seated behind a low writing table on the upper floor of the house talking with the guests who still remain. It is possible that the poet is Rokujuen, son of the ukiyo-e artist Ishikawa Toyonobu, and Shunman’s own poetry teacher, then in his early thirties and already well-known. If so, this would lend the picture even further charm. Each panel of the print is illumined by one source of light, the rest of the design being cast in shadow. The delicacy of the printing is remarkable, and the finesse with which textures as well as different shades of grey is indicated is breathtaking. The names of engravers often appear in illustrated albums and books of this period, but this is possibly the first appearance of an engraver’s name appearing on a woodblock print since the calendar prints of 1765 and 1766.

It does not seem to have been remarked until now that the young boy in the centre panel is carrying an envelope which bears the stylised numbers 4, 6, 7, 9 and 11. These are the numbers of five of the six short months of 1788. The sixth short month of 1788 was the second month, but since the cherry trees are in blossom, the print was probably designed, if not published, in the third month of that year, making a reminder about the second month unnecessary. In all fairness it should be mentioned that this sequence of months did appear once more in the last quarter of the 18th century, as five of the seven long months for 1784. The two other long months of that year were the first and the second, and by the same line of reasoning this print could have been published around the third month of that year. The faces and hair styles of the women do look rather early, but the subject of a poetry gathering, and especially the freely-drawn vignette in the centre panel, so reminiscent of album pages of the late 1780s and early 1790s, inclines one toward the later date.

Reproduced in: Ukiyo-e Art, No. 3, Exhibition of Masterpieces of Ukiyo-e, 1963, no. 202.
Ingelheim catalogue, no. 44.
Riese, Asiatische Studien, 1972, p. 91, no. 16.