*This post was originally written as a Facebook post for Babywearing International of Cleveland for International Babywearing Week 2016. Some edits have been made for clarity.
This is the last art object of this series on babywearing and art. Don't worry, it's not my last post (I still have some more in store)!
Titled “Teishinkō” (from the Library of Congress, FP 2 - JPD, no. 2003) which translates to “the courtier Teishin,” this print by Utagawa Toyokuni III shows a woman carrying a child on her back. She was probably a member of the recently wealthy middle class, which rose to prominence during the Edo period. The Edo period was a period of peace, which meant that resources and wealth could be spent on luxuries like, theater, women, and art, all of which the middle class did lustily. This work falls under the category of “bijin-ga,” or images of beautiful people, a subset of the ukiyo-e prints that were popular during this period (this print was probably produced around 1843-1845). Ukiyo-e prints, “pictures of the floating world,” were often of the actors and popular entertainers of Edo Japan. They were light in theme and celebratory in nature, exemplifying “joie de vivre,” or joy of life. Woodblock prints, because many could be made from a single carved block (think a rubber stamp, but made from wood), were wildly popular and widely disseminated. They became especially popular with European collectors and painters such as Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who admired the flatness and bright colors.
The carrier is hard to see in this print, but the black X-shaped lines across her front are similar to photographs of Japanese women wearing babies that appear in western publications in the nineteenth century.** They appear to be straps that would attach a to panel to secure a baby to her back, then cross under her arms and tie behind her. The arrangement of bodies here is stylized, or simplified, so what appears to be straps also seems to be quite loose! I have my suspicions that the artist was both unfamiliar with the intricacies of babywearing and also more interested in aesthetic effect (note, too, how the lines of flowers in her garment do not bend very convincingly with her pose, and the fabric itself is rendered as flat planes of color).
The portrait behind her, the partially unrolled scroll, plus the tablet with a poem on it in the background might give us some more context to this work, but (without reading Japanese) reflect the literary history of Japan, and recall playbills and posters for popular theatrical events, like Kabuki, as if this mother and child were just off to a show!
**I can't be sure of the provenance of this image, but the credit on the website is to M. Nakajima of Tokyo