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A Shamisen Player and Her Assistant

Date: 1920s published by Hasegawa
Size: chuban, approx. 7.525" x 10.25"
Condition: VG, no flaws, uncirculated print, "Made in Japan" stamped on verso
Impression: VG, excellent printing with solid key lines and tight registration
Color: VG, deep saturated color and excellent bleed through to verso
Provenance: from the Robert O. Muller estate

The shamisen is similar in length to a guitar, but its neck is much slimmer and without frets. Its drum-like rounded rectangular body, known as the , is covered front and back with skin in the manner of a banjo, and amplifies the sound of the strings. The skin is usually from a dog or cat, but in the past a special type of paper was used and recently various types of plastics are being tried. On the skin of some of the best shamisen, the position of the cat's nipples can still be seen.

The three strings are traditionally made of silk, or, more recently, nylon. The lowest passes over a small hump at the "nut" end so that it buzzes, creating a characteristic sound known as sawari (somewhat reminiscent of the "buzzing" of a sitar). The upper part of the is usually protected by a cover known as a kake, and players often wear a little band of cloth on their left hand to facilitate sliding up and down the neck. This band is known as a yubikake. There may also be a cover on the head of the instrument, known as a tenjin.

Authentic hand made woodcut print published by Hasegawa in the 1920s, nice impression, deep saturated color and excellent bleed through to verso, by 18th century woodblock master Harunobu.


Much about Harunobu's life (1725-1770) is unknown. His work suggests a strong influence from Okumura Masanobu, a ukiyo-e artist and publisher in Edo, and Nishikawa Sukenobu, an ukiyo-e painter in Kyoto. During the Meiwa era (1764-1772), a popular custom in Edo was exchanging picture calendars (egoyomi). These calendars, into which producers put a great deal of creative ingenuity, vied with one another in both design and the richness of their colors, and as a result the techniques of color printing made quantum leaps forward.

Just 20 or so years previously, the invention of so-called benizuri-e had made it possible to print ukiyo-e in three or four colors, but already it was becoming possible to print about ten different colors on a single sheet of paper. It was Harunobu who first applied this new technique to ukiyo-e prints. Such prints were called nishiki-e (brocade pictures) since their beauty was likened to that of elaborate nishiki brocade textiles. These early nishiki-e of Harunobu were the origin of the multicolored ukiyo-e with which we are most likely to be familiar today. The year of their origin can be traced, quite precisely, to 1765. Harunobu produced in his lifetime some 700 nishiki-e, many of them portraits, very popular among the urban population, of delicate, doll-like beautiful women.

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