In this work—previously owned by Masuda Takashi (1848–1938), founder of the Mitsui conglomerate—a man and a woman in carriages attend the funeral of the imperial princess Shūshi. Not realizing that the woman is accompanied by a man, the courtier Minamoto no Itaru releases fireflies into her carriage, hoping to get a glimpse of her face. Here, all three characters are depicted through the bamboo blinds of consecutive oxcarts, with Itaru to the right and the woman and her male companion to the left. Itaru has already released the fireflies, and the woman attempts to shield her suddenly illuminated face with her sleeve. The fireflies are rendered with silver pigment and dabs of vermilion red, but because the silver has oxidized to black, they are now difficult to discern. The unseemly behavior at an imperial funeral aside, the elegance of exposing an assignation or an act of voyeurism by thrusting fireflies as a light source was a familiar concept at the Heian court (794–1185).
Carriage and Firefly, Tales of Ise, episode 39
Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40)
Japan, ca. 1600
Poetry sheet mounted as hanging scroll
Ink, colors, and gold on paper
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 35.309