Women and landscapes dominate much of 19th century Japanese art. While girls of many classes are illustrated, the most popular are courtesans, shown putting on makeup or just sitting quietly waiting for their client or lover to come to them. This image of docility and passivity is not absolute. Yet there are girls in action. Sometimes they are lower class girls performing menial tasks, such as gathering water or hanging out laundry. Others are aristocratic or leisure class, shown taking long walks in beautiful vistas.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Girl by the Water with Fireflies, c.1890, British Museum.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Girl by the Water with Fireflies, c.1890, British Museum.

Girl by the Water with Fireflies is one of a series of four prints showing girls by a river. They are engaged in fun of varying kinds, with this well dressed girl chasing fireflies with her fan. Fireflies are best viewed in summer by the clean and clear streams. They are significant in Japanese culture and poetry as symbols of passionate love and spirits of dead warriors. Perhaps this image is meant as a metaphor for a young girl in pursuit of love.

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