Circa 1910 Japanese Silk Screen, Beautiful Woman under a Lilac Tree



Late Meiji era, circa 1910.

Young Lady under a Lilac Tree

Two-fold screen. Ink, pigment and powdered shell on silk.

Upper seal: Shirahama

Lower seal: Tokisou


W. 210 cm x H. 115 cm  (83” x 45”)


In this late Meiji era silk screen, the artist depicts a young lady under a lilac tree lying on a bed of moss. It is an early summer scene and the tree is in full bloom with clusters of fragrant flowers adorning it. The branches are clothed in lustrous, dark green leaves. The carpet of moss, the profusion of tiny flowers and the velvety foliage are all painted with great delicacy. The sombre greens and earthy tones lend the work a shimmering depth. The lilac hues of the kimono, not necessarily bright or cheerful, are somehow more subtle and profound.

Her languid and exaggerated pose underscores the sense of longing that saturates the entire painting. It similarly implies great emotion and she all but melts into the carpet of moss. It is a compelling portrait of women who, despite her loveliness, is far more than a passive beauty. Because her thoughts are private, the viewer is pulled into a relationship with the women that transcends the physical and sentimental. In her pose, with left leg crossed over right, outstretched listless arms and disheveled hair, the artist is perhaps alluding to, or was inspired by, Gustave Courbet’s “Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine”, the provocative hit of the 1857 Paris Salon.

Activities and festivals associated with pre-modern culture were common themes in Meiji andTaisho period nihonga, and the romantic, midsummer Tanabata celebration was frequently depicted. Tanabata (The Star Festival) celebrates the bittersweet romance between the celestial herdboy and the weaver maiden who can only meet on the seventh day of the seventh month. In Japan the event is celebrated with bamboo branches decorated with strips of paper, on which are written one’s hopes or desires for love. Women washing their hair is also associated with the Tanabata festival. Given the seasonal and physical references in the present painting it is easy to imagine her being swept up in the emotions of the Star Festival.

The artist remains unknown though the work bears two seals. The lower of these reads ‘Tokisou’. Tokisou is a type of small, pink orchid native to Japan, Korea and Eastern China. It is difficult to envisage a male artist choosing this as his painting name or moniker. It is far more likely to be the work of a female artist.