Kitagawa Utamaro
The Dreaming Boy
c. 1804

Signed: Utamaro hitsu; Publisher’s seal: Yamamoto Ōmiya; ōban, 38.6 x 25.0 cm; nishiki-e with grey ground (nezumikira)

A girl has painted a moustache on a sleeping boy. This may be the reason why he then dreams about a beautiful cat, seen posing seductively with an umbrella in the dream bubble floating above him. “Neko” (“cat”) is a nickname for geishas. The snoring noises the boy is making appear in the caption next to him. His mother, standing behind him, is viewing the scene by the light of a lantern.

Hettie Rhoda Meade (Sotheby’s, London, March 1961)
Riese Collection #79

The girl has already tied the poor boy’s hair into pigtails, and is adding a moustache. Perhaps this suggestion of whiskers has started him dreaming about the lovely cat strolling with a partially open summer kimono and a parasol. The words beside the boy are the sounds of sleep and snoring, a few mumbled syllables, and a “Hey! What’s that?”. Unless it was customary to sleep with one’s kimono tucked up exposing one’s knees, the print may have some slightly erotic connotation. Japanese were fond of word association. Neko means “cat”, but because cat skin was used to cover it, cat also was a word for samisen. Since they played the instrument, cat became another word for geisha. But cat was also a word for a dissembler: A person who pretended to know less than he let on, and perhaps the boy in the picture is playing what we would call “possum”, and pleasantly acquiescing in his torment.

Reproduced in: Ingelheim catalogue, no. 68.