Kitagawa Utamaro
The Hour of the Snake

Signed: Utamaro hitsu; Publisher’s logo (Tsutaya Jūsaburō); censor’s seal: kiwame; hanshin-e, ōban, 36.7 x 24.2 cm; nishiki-e with yellow ground and metallic pigments

From “The Twelve Hours in the Green Houses” This famous series with the idealized, exaggeratedly slim female figures provides insight into the private lives of the “courtesans”. The day in old Japan began with sunset and was divided into twelve double hours, corresponding with the twelve signs of the East Asian zodiac. Mi (snake) is number 6 in the series and corresponds with the time just before sunrise, when the ladies of Yoshiwara were able to take a relaxing bath.

Henri Vever (Sotheby’s, London, March 1975)
Riese Collection #68

A courtesan who has just stepped out of the bath and is drying herself with one sleeve of her light, summer kimono, and an attendant kneeling beside her with a porcelain cup of tea, are both looking to the left, perhaps at someone approaching from outside the picture.

The Japanese day was divided into twelve two hour periods beginning at 11 P.M., which were given names corresponding to the twelve animals of the Japanese zodiac. “Snake” is he sixth animal in this series and corresponds with the time between 9 and 11 in the morning, the time when a courtesan might have time to take a leisurely bath.

The cartouche of Utamaro’s set is shaped like a Japanese pendulum clock with weights on the swinging crossbar near the top and hanging down on either side of the characters fort he series title.

Each print from the series also contains the picture of a flower above the series title. Sets of twelve months were commoner than sets of twelve hours in the ukiyo-e world, and although the flowers do not directly correspond with the month depicted in the print (the iris here, for example, is associated with Boy’s Day festivities in the fifth month rather than the sixth month), perhaps a set of months could be made up by rearranging the prints in order of the flowers. It is, at any rate, appropriate that the women in this print should be wearing light summer kimonos and accompanied by a flower which is associated with the beginning of summer.

“Green House” was a euphemism for a brothel in Japan. In the Edo period the word was used most commonly for the government licensed quarters of prostitution like the Yoshiwara. The term is Chinese in origin. In ancient times, Chinese houses of pleasure seem to have been painted with green (or blue – the same character is used for both colours) lacquer.

The complete set is reproduced in: Kiyoshi Shibui, Ukiyo-e Zuten, p. 129.
Nihon Hanga Zenshū, Vol. 4, pp. 134-135.
Ukiyo-e Taikei, Vol. 5, pp. 108-109.