This screen is a splendid example of early ukiyo-e painting, a style of Japanese genre painting that emerged in the Kan’ei era. Fern leaves are strung across the ceiling to celebrate the New Year. The exquisite lacquered vanity table at left indicates the setting—the private room of an expertly coiffed courtesan, who leans on an armrest with a tobacco pipe in her hand. Her maid, dressed in richly patterned robes, stretches across the tatami to offer a letter to a second, younger courtesan, whose hair falls into disarray around her shoulders.
In the background, sliding doors are decorated in the pattern of "scattered fans and squares." The painted square on the panel at left depicts a scene from the Ukifune chapter of the great classic Tale of Genji (written in the early eleventh century). The interplay between the two courtesans, punctuated by the handmaiden delivering the letter, may be a reference to the pivotal moment of the Ukifune chapter, when the letter bearers of the two lovers of Ukifune cross paths by chance.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University Art Museum: handbook of the collections, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).