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Hokusai, Five Beautiful Women

“Five Beautiful Women,” by Katsushika Hokusai, on display at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, depicts five women of different social backgrounds in an intriguing hierarchy. Painted on silk around the year 1810, the work prompts the viewer to consider clothing and its relationship to our identity. Discover more about Hokusai and this ukiyo-e masterpiece from Amada Cruz, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum. Video by Bank of America. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(Jazz music playing) Hello, I am Amada Cruz, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum. Welcome to Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today, I would like to talk about one of my favorite works from our collection, "Five Beautiful Women" by Katsushika Hokusai, and tell you why I think it is truly a masterpiece. Before we begin our discussion, I would like to tell you a little more about our newly renovated and expanded Seattle Asian Art Museum, one of the few museums in North America exclusively dedicated to Asian art. This beautiful 1933 Art Deco building was SAM's original home, and in 1994, after a new museum building opened in downtown Seattle, this facility reopened as the museum's center for Asian art and cultural activities. In 2020, we reopened this gem after a major renovation, and now each gallery presents artworks from ancient to contemporary, and from across Asia, including Japan, China, Korea, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Himalaya and the Middle East. The museum's Asian art holdings are among the finest in the United States, and its Japanese collection is one of the top ten outside of Japan. As part of our collection, we are honored to have one of Katsushika Hokusai's masterpieces, "Five Beautiful Women". It's painted on fine silk with vibrant colors, and it's about 18 inches wide and 71 inches tall. Hokusai is a household name in Japan and also widely known worldwide. For many of us, the name Hokusai brings to mind the iconic prints of the "Great Wave" or "Red Fuji," of which SAM fortunately has fine impressions in its collection thanks to Seattle collectors Mary and Allan Kollar. This painting was acquired in 1956 from the highly regarded Japanese dealer Mayuyama, who supplied top-notch Japanese art to museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art and, of course, the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Born in 1760, Hokusai entered the art world at the age of 19 and enjoyed a prolific career that spanned 70 years. He produced an estimated tens of thousands of woodblock prints and was no doubt a master of the Pop art of his time,"ukiyo-e," or pictures of the floating world. Soon after his death in 1849, many of the prints found their way to Europe, where Impressionists such as Claude Monet were fascinated by his work. Hokusai's creative energy and genius can also be found in his paintings. Unlike prints, his paintings were not produced in multiples and thus in a less greater number, but they are marvelous, such as the one we have here. Hokusai painted "Five Beautiful Women" around 1810, about two decades before he created the famed "Great Wave." Here, he ingeniously composed five women of different social backgrounds in an intriguing hierarchy, differentiated by their clothing. At the top is a woman from a high-ranking warrior family. She wears a kimono decorated with an iris design and a lavish "obi" sash and is poised with a writing brush and paper in hand. The next is a young woman from a wealthy merchant family in a "shibori" tie-dyed kimono, engaged in flower arrangement. The third woman in a black kimono with floral designs and a butterfly-shaped hat is a lady-in-waiting in the residence of a "shogun" or "daimyo," a Japanese feudal lord. Beneath her reclines a high-class courtesan, identified by her front-tied "obi" that bears a peacock feather pattern. At the bottom is a middle-aged woman in a simple, brown kimono with a checkered "obi" sash. She is reclining on the floor, reading a book. Her somber-colored robes and plucked eyebrows lead some scholars to suggest she is a widow. All the remarkable detailing of the garment patterns we see here is a trademark of deluxe "ukiyo-e" painting. Painted on silk with expensive pigments, this painting is among the finest works that Hokusai made for his wealthiest clients. It is a pivotal work of the popular genre, beautiful women. In fact, the gallery we are in right now is titled "Are We What We Wear?" The array of garments and accessories here prompts us to think about clothing and the relationships to our identity. Hokusai's painting does this so eloquently and beautifully. Along with seven other paintings by masters such as Raphael and Goya, "Five Beautiful Women" appeared on the 1974 "famous works of art" commemorative stamps illustrating the theme of "Letters mingle souls" to mark the centennial of the Universal Postal Union. I want to thank you for taking the time to watch today and to learn more about Hokusai's "Five Beautiful Women." I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss the piece with family and friends. And please visit the Bank of America Masterpiece Moment website to sign up for alerts and ensure that you never miss a moment. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit: www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.