Utagawa Kuninao (歌川國直 1793-1854) was a pupil of Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) in Edo. He is not the same artist as Yanagawa Kuninao (柳川國直 act. 1823 in Osaka).
The life of the courtesan was an endlessly fascinating theme in ukiyo-e prints and paintings. The pleasure quarters served not only as erotic worlds of escape (at least for the patrons, if not for the indentured women), but also as social spheres where sophisticates gave themselves over to the spirit of asobi (play: 遊) within the yûkaku (places to play: 遊廓). They amused themselves by eating, drinking, listening to music, writing poetry, and engaging with the yûjo (women of pleasure and play: 遊女). While not serious in the usual sense, such pursuits could be intensely absorbing to the players involved. Moreover, these and other euphemisms for "play" carried with them connotations of an appreciation for imaginative pursuits and knowing how to play with wit and style. It was, however, also a world that was too expensive for the poor urban dweller or ordinary merchant. Thus voyeuristic portrayals of courtesans provided a substitute for actual engagement with the pleasure women.
Kuninao's triptych employs a painting convention called fukinuki yatai (blown-away roof: 吹抜屋台) in which the scene is presented from a high vantage point and interiors were visible in "roofless" rooms. These works were characterized by geometrical frameworks with interior scenes shown by removing the roofs and a slightly tilted diagonal perspective employed from an aerial viewpoint. Fukinuki yatai were especially associated with e-maki (picture scrolls: 絵巻), most often in the Japanese painting style known as yamato-e (大和絵), which was inspired by Chinese Tang dynasty paintings (7th to 10th centuries) and fully developed by the late Heian period (794-1185) in Japan.
Although this is an imaginary view — a virtual encyclopedia of brothel life — there are realistic elements throughout the design. The wealth of detail is fascinating. Courtesans and assistants move along the hallways, climb up or walk down stairs, chat with one another, direct servants, attend to customers, and otherwise engage in a whirl of activity. On the right sheet, a male servant labors in a storage room while just beyond an elderly male artist who is wearing spectacles paints a hanging picture scroll (kakemono 掛物 or kakejiku 掛軸). At the top of that sheet, assistants help dress a courtesan's hair, adorning it with kanzashi (ornamental hairpins: 簪 also 笄). Centered on the same sheet is a separate room in which a courtesan plays a shamisen (three-stringed instrument: 三味線) while another holds a robe, presumably for a departing customer who is out of view. More clients are being serviced in second-floor rooms shown on the center sheet. In one space, a customer's purple coat has been draped over a painted byôbu (folding floor screen: 屏風) while a courtesan is disrobing, a roll of tissues clenched between her teeth. Below on the first floor, a group of men prepare fish and rice dishes. Nearby, a courtesan is either receiving a love letter or sending the male servant away to deliver that letter to a patron. At the lower left on the left sheet, next to the entrance to the brothel, a group of prostitutes are seated, listening to a shamisen player, writing on a long handscroll, reading a book, gossiping, or simply waiting. All are on display behind a harimise (display window: 張見世), the lattice opening or showroom of a brothel where prostitutes gathered alluringly in view of passersby. Sex workers on display behind the lattices were sometimes called kôshi (lattice wall: 格子) courtesans.
Views such as these are not common but occasionally they are illustrated in the literature. See, for example, a similar composition by Utagawa Kunisada I in Sebastian Izzard, Kunisada's World. New York: Japan Society, 1993, pp. 58-60, no. 11.