From gentility to genitalia: the koto, a Japanese writing box and the transformative power of Dante Gabriel Rossetti by Timothy Hanson
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, a wave of interest in Japan that was comparable to Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, broke upon western shores. The profound influence that this had upon western art and design spawned the name ‘Japonisme’. This article examines Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1865 painting, The Blue Bower and specifically his depiction of a Japanese koto instrument. Rossetti’s artistic intentions are unraveled by comparing his painting to an eighteenth century Japanese writing box which has been fashioned outwardly into the shape of a koto. Both painting and box draw upon the koto’s gendered nature, but the female attributes to which they allude are very different. This essay offers a new analysis of Rossetti’s The Blue Bower and suggests its association with both Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Japanese ukiyo-e art.