Women and East Asian Art

The Hell Courtesan

By Kyra Samony

The Hell Courtesan, attributed to Japanese artist Seiki, was painted during the Edo period. The medium is ink on silk, displayed on a hanging scroll[1]. In the work, the courtesan is depicted wearing an extremely detailed garment. The visual components, such as colors and patterns, of the garment are essential in understanding the woman and her role in society, view of herself, and message that is attempting to be conveyed through the work.

She is also known as Jigoku Dayū, which literally translates to Hell Courtesan[2]. She is often depicted alongside demons that appear in forms of Japanese Buddhism. Many versions of stories surrounding the Hell Courtesan suggest that she was an extremely beautiful prostitute, that achieved Buddhist enlightenment[3]. She is the focus of multiple artworks, and usually appears alone, with garments displaying terrifying scenes of Hell. The patterns on her clothing and her being the sole figure in the work speaks about her power and how she is viewed.

In this representation of the Hell Courtesan, she is suggestively looking over her shoulder while lifting her kimono, almost inviting the viewer to take note of her clothing. Looking closely at the kimono, the overlord of Hell, Emma-Ō, and other demons are depicted2. It is extremely common for scenes of Hell to accompany the courtesan is artworks. The use of negative space emphasizes the courtesan and draws the eye to her detailed and colorful kimono, which is the focus of the work. Her facial expression shows that she knows the meaning that her kimono conveys.


Closer look at her kimono, which depicts the overlord of Hell.

The focus of the work being her kimono shows how women can create opinions about themselves using specific patterns and clothing. The courtesan choosing to wear this shows her agency is deciding what message she wishes to convey, whether it a message of power or a message of hellish suffering.

[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2019. 地獄太夫図 The Hell Courtesan. Accessed November 24, 2019.

[2] Shogakukan Inc, 和樂編集部. 2019. Who is the Hell Courtesan? Accessed November 24, 2019.

[3] Art Institute of Chicago. 2019. An Auspicious Kind of Hell. Accessed November 24, 2019.

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