Shamisen Player

Artist: Kitagawa Utamaro II 喜多川歌麿 二代目 (died 1831 ?)
Historical period(s)
Edo period, late 18th-early 19th century
Color, ink, and gold on silk panel
H x W (image): 83.8 × 31.8 cm (33 × 12 1/2 in)
Credit Line
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art Collection
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hanging scroll

courtesan, Edo period (1615 - 1868), Japan, kakemono, music, musician, shamisen, ukiyo-e

To 1899
Edward S. Hull Jr., New York to 1899 [1]

From 1899 to 1919
Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), purchased from Edward S. Hull Jr. in 1899 [2]

From 1920
Freer Gallery of Art, gift of Charles Lang Freer in 1920 [3]


[1] See Original Kakemono List, L. 199, as well as Voucher No. 9, May 1899, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Edward S. Hull Jr. was Ernest Francisco Fenollosa’s (1853-1908) lawyer. Hull often acted as an agent, facilitating purchases of objects consigned to him by Fenollosa, as well as purchases of objects consigned to him by Fenollosa's well-known associate, Bunshichi Kobayashi (see correspondence, Hull to Freer, 1898-1900, as well as invoices from E.S. Hull Jr., 1898-1900, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives). See also, Ingrid Larsen, "'Don’t Send Ming or Later Pictures': Charles Lang Freer and the First Major Collection of Chinese Painting in an American Museum," Ars Orientalis vol. 40 (2011), pgs. 15 and 34. See further, Thomas Lawton and Linda Merrill, Freer: A Legacy of Art, (Washington, DC and New York: Freer Gallery of Art and H. N. Abrams, 1993), pgs. 133-134.

[2] See note 1.

[3] The original deed of Charles Lang Freer's gift was signed in 1906. The collection was received in 1920 upon the completion of the Freer Gallery.

Previous Owner(s) and Custodian(s)

Edward S. Hull Jr. (C.L. Freer source)
Charles Lang Freer 1854-1919


Utamaro was one of the most prolific and talented artists of eighteenth-century Japan. His name is synonymous with evocative studies of women of the licensed brothel quarters. Approximately 1,900 woodblock print designs bear his name; his paintings are rarer. This painting was probably done in the final decade of the artist's life.

Here the shamisen player is rendered in swirling, sinuous lines that surround the instrument, suggesting her intense concentration and mimicking the lines of calligraphy upon which the central meaning of this painting is dependent. The player's partially visible underrobe covered with cursive script of the Japanese hiragana syllabary underscores the theme of visible words.

Inscribed above the figure are two kyoka (literally "mad verse"), which are witty, satirical poems of thirty-one syllables that defy satisfactory translation. The poems here might be rendered as follows: "To hum light songs is the lady's habit; playing the shamisen is the delight of many guests," and "Even songs sung by a sweet voice will not raise the dust on the pillow of one who is thinking of her."

Kyoka were at the height of their popularity in the second half of the eighteenth century; however, the biting political commentary embedded in many caused authorities to ban the format. The works inscribed here are signed by a Kyokabutsu Todamaru, the nom de plume of an unidentified poet whom an early nineteenth century document lists as a prominent judge in poetry contests.

Utamaro was no stranger to the careful government search for seditious intent concealed in painting and poetry. For producing a satirical image of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1597), a revered national leader, he was charged with a violation of the censorship laws and suffered a debilitaing period of imprisonment in 1804.

Published References
  • Ukiyo-e Shuka. 19 vols., Tokyo, 1978-1985. vol. 16 (1981): pl. 48.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Laurance P. Roberts, John M. Rosenfield. A Dictionary of Japanese Artists: Painting, Sculpture, Ceramic, Prints, Lacquer., 1st ed. Tokyo and New York, 1976. .
  • Elisabeth West FitzHugh. A Pigment Census of Ukiyo-e Paintings in the Freer Gallery of Art. vol. 11 Washington and Ann Arbor, 1979. pp. 27-38.
Collection Area(s)
Japanese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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