Village Sparrows: Temporary Shelter in the Nest

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳), 1797-1861

Format, Size: Ōban nishiki-e triptych, R: 251 x 372 mm, C: 250 x 371 mm, L: 252 x 373 mm
Publisher: Kitaya Magobei
Signature: “Playfully drawn by Ichiyūsai Kuniyoshi” (一勇斎国芳戯画)
Reference: Clark 2009, #126

Wide-format horizontal scenes of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters were common during the Edo period, usually showing courtesans arrayed in fine robes situated behind the lattice screens of their “display rooms” (harimise), while townspeople, merchants, and incognito samurai crowded the adjacent avenues. Here, Kuniyoshi delivers a playful parody in which every character is a sparrow. The Tenpō reforms (starting 1842) included a prohibition on depicting courtesans in prints, to which this triptych comically responds. An extra layer of parody comes from the contemporary colloquial nickname ‘sparrow’, given to stylish men who frequented the pleasure quarters.

Upon close inspection, the censor’s seal is embedded in the kimono patterns of three of the birds, one on each sheet, rather than its usual position in an unobtrusive corner of the design. The individual who marked these sheets was actually a censor’s son, filling in for his father who had suffered a stroke. The government disapproved of this flippant behavior so much that the censor was forced to resign.

Complete instances of this triptych are rare, especially in good condition. One exists in the Miller collection at the British Museum (illustrated in Clark 2009), but in markedly degraded condition. Another exists in the Springfield Museum, in better condition but more heavily trimmed, and another exists in the Tobacco and Salt Museum, also with heavy physical damage.