Isoda Koryūsai
The Sign of the Snake
after 1770

Signed: Koryū ga; chūban, 25.0 x 18.0 cm; nishiki-e with karazuri and kirazuri

From “Twelve Elegant Signs of the Zodiac” The snake, which is wound around the peony bush depicted here, is the sixth sign of the Eastern Asian zodiac.Koryūsai also seems to have emulated the book illustrated by Tachibana Morikun (1679–1748) in 1720, Ehon shahō-bukuro. The anthology of poems illustrated by Katsuma Ryūsui in 1765, Yama no sachi (“Treasures of the Mountains”), also seems to have had an influence.

Provenance: John Mellor (Sotheby’s, London, July 1963)
Riese Collection #33

Sometime after the death of Harunobu, in the early 1770s, colour printing became commercial. The large, heavy paper of the late 1760s which lent itself so well to the effects of embossing and elaborate printing that we associate with Harunobu was replaced by a thinner material, and the range of colours which seemed limitless in the experimental enthusiasm of the 1760s were restricted very much to the range used so effectively in this print: blue, purple, red, orange, apple green, pearl grey. The artists most involved with this development were the actor portraitists of the Katsukawa School and Koryūsai. Perhaps because of the limitations imposed on the medium of the woodcut in the 1770s, Koryūsai’s designs are often weak and unimaginative. Perhaps it was his dissatisfaction with the new conventions that led him to turn to bird-and-flower prints which in their size and technique revived the glories of the Meiwa period. In the end however, he gave up print design altogether and confined himself to painting.

The present print of a client visiting a brothel in an outlying area of Edo is a very fine example of Koryūsai’s early style. On the snowy bank at the left the blurred edge of the grey shadow is an early use of the bevelled block, or itabokashi.