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A very early and rare pair of 17th century Kakiemon figures of bijin (Japanese courtesans), wearing uchikake (outer garment) enamelled in the Kakiemon style with kichō panels (Curtains of State) and stylized falling leaves


Arita, Kakiemon style, Hizen province, Japan

Early Edo period, Kanbun Era (1661-1673)

circa 1660-1670



14.5 cm in height and 6.0 cm wide across the base.



Christie’s (London) ‘Japanese Works of Art’, 6 & 7 March 1989, lot 321 "A pair of Kakiemon models of bijin" (see final two images for Christie's auction catalogue and lot 321 coloured illustration of the present pair of Kakiemon bijin figures).

Possibly two of the “310 small statuettes” shipped aboard the Amerongen from Japan to Batavia in 1665.



Two standing figures of Japanese courtesans, with both hands pulling up the folds of their outer garments to reveal under-kimonos, a single foot emerging from beneath the fabric. A firing-hole in the left armpit and on the back. Unglazed flat base with light textile imprint. Decorated in the very early Kakiemon palette of iron-red, green, black and overglaze blue enamels. The folds of the garment on the front enhanced in red and green, picked out in black, on the back stylized rectangular screen panels and falling leaves. Height 14.5 cm.



The courtesans are modelled wearing the uchikake robe (formal outer garment with no sash) over several luxuriant layers of najajuban (underkimonos) which are decorated in the very early Kakiemon palette of iron-red, green, blue and black enamels.

The large and flowing uchitake robe with draped sleeves is sparingly decorated with stylized maple leaves and rectangular panels known as kichō panels (Curtains of State), which depict room dividers that were used to shield court ladies from the eyes of men. In notable contrast to these privacy panels depicted on the back of their robes, the bijin are modelled coquettishly lifting the front of their outer garments to reveal the kosode (inner kimono) underneath, and to give the viewer a tantalizing glimpse of their delicate feet.


The kichō panel decoration on the outer robes makes reference to the Curtains of State recorded in the revered Japanese novel 'The Tale of Genji' (Genji Monogatari) written in the 11th century and purported to be the world's first novel. Written over 1,000 years ago, the epic Japanese tale follows the life and romances of Hikaru Genji and was written by a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese court, Murasaki Shikibu, who is said to have completed it around the year 1010. Within the tale, the ladies of the court are hidden from the gaze of men behind rectangular decorated fabric kichō panels.


The courtesans of the late 17th century became known as the 'Kanbun bijin' and were celebritized using contemporary wood-block prints known as ukiyo-e (‘pictures of the floating world’) which quickly became widespread across Japan. Eline van den Berg, curator of Asian Ceramics at the Princessehof, notes that early models of Kakiemon bijin "represent high class courtesans of the Kanbun era (1661-1673) who were living and working in the famous pleasure quarters of cities like Kyoto and Edo - women admired for their looks by men and women alike, who were seen as fashion icons" (Van den Berg, p.25). These court beauties became the first trend-setters, popularizing hundreds of different hairstyles and fashionable garments. In these particularly early statuettes, their hair is combed loose and flowing down their backs, with a high double-parted coiffure on top; this indicates an earlier date compared to the more commonly found and more refined larger models of Kakiemon bijin dated between 1670-1700 featuring elaborate chignon (up-do) hairstyles such as the gosho-mage style.


Contrary to erotic depictions of the ideal feminine figure in The Western World, which most commonly draws attention to the female nude, Eva Strober notes that "the bodies of the Kakiemon bijin….are not revealed, not even the smallest part. They are fully dressed, even in several layers of fine robes. What, then, makes them sexually attractive? The (Japanese) answer would be: their faces, their robes, their coiffures, and in particular, the fact that they are not naked. This ideal of feminine beauty is....a rather robust, but elegantly and splendidly dressed woman, comparable to the Kakiemon bijin." (Strober, p.26) Stober observes that "the criteria of what constitutes a woman’s idealised and erotic beauty varied greatly between different cultures. These charming Kakiemon bijin figures can be enjoyed for their aesthetic refinement. At the same time, they provide not only more knowledge about the history of Japanese ceramics, but they are also tangible evidence of different concepts of ideal feminine beauty in intercultural crossings." (Strober, p.26)

A very rare & early pair of 17th Century Kakiemon figure of bijin, c1660-70


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    See Oliver Impey & Christian Jorg "Dragons, Tigers and Bamboo: Japanese Porcelain and Its Impact in Europe; The MacDonald Collection" (The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, 2009), for an almost identical pair of bijin, museum number G05.12.25.1 and G05.12.25.2.


    See Christie's (London) 'Japanese Works of Art' 7 & 8 March 1989, lot 321, for the cataloguing of the present pair.

  • Comparable examples

    One other known example of the present pair of very early Kakiemon bijin figures is in the collection of The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (Toronto); Macdonald Collection of Japanese Porcelain (Toronto); purchased from Miranda Clarke/Roger Keverne Ltd. (London); formerly with Spink & Son (London, UK); sold Christie’s (London) Fine Japanese Works of Art, 28 October 1987, lot 68.


    The enamelled decoration on the present pair of bijin figures - particularly in the stylized fabric folds and enamel colouration - is directly comparable to the important documentary Kakiemon model of 'An Immortal on a Tortoise' c1660-1665, of which four examples are known today. This early enamelled model is invaluable in the dating of early Kakiemon style wares and figures. As Oliver Impey notes in the catalogue 'Porcelain For Palaces' (1990), the Dutch East India Company shipping documents record that the Nieuwenhoven was sent to Holland from Batavia in 1665 bearing 19,229 pieces of porcelain from a cargo brought from Japan in the Amerongen. Among these pieces were several Japanese figures including "295 small statuettes on tortoises" and “310 small statuettes”. This securely establishes that the 'Immoral on a Tortoise model’ was made at least as early as 1664.


    One of the four known 'Immoral on a Tortoise model’ sold at Christie’s (London) ‘Japanese Art & Design' 11 May 2011, lot 104 as “A Rare Kakiemon Model of an Immortal on a Tortoise circa 1660-70”. This particular example boasts provenance from The Earls of Lauderdale and was likely the same model catalogued in the Duchess of Lauderdale's closet at Ham House, Surrey, in the 17th century.


    Upon comparing the freestyled enamelling of the garment folds on both the Lauderdale ‘Immortal on a Tortoise’ model and the present pair of bijin figures, it is immediately evident that the stylistically painted folds enhanced in green, red and blue enamel and picked out with black detailing are directly comparable. The similarities in the thick bubbling black enamel on the hair of both models, as well as the melting effect of the soft white glaze on the contoured facial features and hands are clear, establishing a very similar enamelled palette, paste, glaze and overall technique between the models. 


    Given these similarities and therefore equally early dating, it is highly plausible that the present pair of bijins may have been among the “310 small statuettes” brought from Japan aboard the Amerongen in 1665 alongside the "295 small statuettes on tortoises".


    Another example of the 'Immoral on a Tortoise model’ exists in the celebrated and documentary collection of Burghley House (Lincolnshire, UK). As noted by Oliver Impey the 1688 Inventory taken at Burghley House for the Earl of Exeter including numerous pieces of early Japanese porcelain and figural models making “those pieces, the earliest recorded Japanese porcelains in Europe, the earliest examples where we can confidently equate a seventeenth century description with a specific extant object". (Impey, O. 'Japanese Porcelain at Burghley House', p.117) Also at Burghley House, and stylistically comparable to the present pair of bijin figures are the “2 figures with Juggs att theire backs”. These early Kakiemon figures measuring 14 cm in height were located in the fifth Earl of Exeter's Dressing Room in the 1688 Inventory and remain in the house to this day. They also bear similar enamelling techniques depicting the folds of the figures garments, though appear to be perhaps of very slightly later date to the ‘Immortal on a Tortoise’ model and the present pair of bijin figures.


    A slightly later variation of the present model of bijin appeared at Bonham’s (London) 18 March 2003 from the Samuel Stillman Osgood Collection, lot 236 “An extremely rare Kakiemon figure of a bijin”, which is clearly based on the present model of bijin, though likely dating to circa 1670-90. Another of this model in the Macdonald Collection as promised gift to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art (Toronto) museum collection number T15.2.55 and dated circa 1680.

    Another slightly later variation of the present figure of bijin appears raised upon a base alongside a small child, enamelled in a more elaborate and profuse pattern, though very likely based on the present earlier figural moulds. An example of this variation, which stands at 18cm in height due to the added base, appeared at Wooley & Wallis (Wiltshire, UK) 'Japanese Works of Art' 14 November 2018, lot 1136, called "A Rare Japanese Kakiemon figural group".



    Bonham’s (London) Samuel Stillman Osgood Collection, 18 March 2003.


    Christie’s (London) Fine Japanese Works of Art, 28 October 1987.


    Christie’s (London) Japanese Works of Art, 6 & 7 March 1989.


    Christie’s (London) Japanese Art & Design, 11 May 2011.


    Impey, Oliver & Christian Jörg. Dragons, Tigers & Bamboo: Japanese Porcelain and its Impact in Europe: The Macdonald Collection (Gardiner Museum: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009).


    Impey, Oliver. Japanese Export Porcelain: Catalogue of the Collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Amsterdam 2002).


    Impey, Oliver. Japanese Porcelain at Burghley House: The Inventory of 1688 and the Sale of 1888, Metropolitan Museum Journal 37 (2002).


    Impey, Oliver. Porcelain for Palaces: The Fashion for Japan in Europe, 1650-1750 (London, 1990).


    Strober, Eva. “Two Kakiemon bijin: the Erotic Appeal of Robes & Hairstyles” (Princessehof, 2017).


    Tanner, Culpepper. “An Inventory of the Goods in Burghley House belonging to the Right Honble John Earl of Exeter and Ann Countesse of Exeter Take August 21th 1688” MS, Burghley House. Transcribed by Jon Culverhouse, Oliver Impey and Mimi Morris.


    Van den Berg, Eline. “A Pair of Kakiemon bijin at the Princessehof” (Princessehof, 2017).


    Volker, T. The Japanese Porcelain Trade of the Dutch East India Company after 1683 ‘Mededelingen van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden


    Wooley & Wallis (Wiltshire, UK) 'Japanese Works of Art' 14 November 2018.

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