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KITAO Shigemasa (北尾重政)


Kitao Shigemasa (北尾重政), 1739-1820), is recognized as the founder of the Kitao school of ukiyo-e printmaking. He was born into a family of publishers and booksellers as the son of Suharaya Saburôbei and grandson of Suharaya Mohei in Nihonbashi, Edo. His family name was Kitabatake (北畠) and his childhood name was Tarôkichi. He also used the personal name Kyûgorô (久五郎). Shigemasa signed his works with as many as fourteen different art names (: 號), a large number even for a ukiyo-e artist. Over the course of his career, Shigemasa produced woodblock prints, illustrated books, paintings, calligraphy, and poetry.

Kitao Shigemasa geisha fukugawa
Kitao Shigemasa: Geisha at Fukugawa, c. 1776-78
Series: Tôhô no bijin no zu ("Pictures of Beauties from the East": 東方美人の圖)
Woodblock print, ôban (372 x 255 mm)

Shigemasa might have studied with Nishimura Shigenaga (西村重長 c. 1697-1756), although other artists probably influenced his style as well, particularly Torii Kiyomitsu (鳥居清満, 1735-1785) during Shigemasa's early years when he designed two- or three-color prints (benizuri-e: 紅摺絵). Aspects of the works of Suzuki Harunobu and Isoda Koryûsai can also be found in his later full-color prints (nishiki-e: 錦絵). Even so, scholars have concluded that Shigemasa was largely self-taught and developed a distinct style of portraying women. His beauties are idealized but closer to real life than the dainty imaginings of Harunobu and early Isoda Koryûsai. His production of designs for illustrated books (ehon: 絵本) was especially important and prolific, numbering more than 250 works for which he was either the sole contributing artist or a collaborating illustrator. He also produced illustrations for light popular literature (kuzazôshi: 草双紙), trendy and often satirical fiction (kibyôshi: 黄表紙), albums of "bird and flower pictures" (kachôga: 花鳥画), and erotica (shunga: 春画). Shigemasa's pupils included some important figures of the age, such as Kitao Masanobu (北尾政寅 also called Santô Kyôden, 山東 京伝 1761-1816), Kitao Masayoshi (北尾政美 1764-1824), and Kubô Shunman (窪俊満 1757-1820). He may also have taught, in some limited or unofficial capacity, Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai, and he seems to have influenced Torii Kiyonaga.

In one of his much-admired mature print designs (see image above), two geisha from Fukagawa ("Deep River": 染川) are depicted. They lived and worked in an area southeast of the Sumida River and outside the immediate jurisdiction of Edo city magistrates. Fukagawa was a very popular, unlicensed pleasure district, the best of those in competition with the government-sanctioned and more expensive Yoshiwara (葭原 then later 吉原) in Edo. Fukagawa courtesans worked under a "summoning" arrangement" (yobidashi: 呼出) whereby they were sent to service their customers at restaurants, teahouses, and inns near the river. They were known for their own brand of style and sophistication, and for the most part they did not follow the complicated protocols of their high-ranking Yoshiwara sisters. The geisha of Fukagawa, such as the two portrayed by Shigemasa, were not, officially, prostitutes. Also known as Tatsumi geisha (辰巳芸者), they were considered especially seductive and accomplished in the arts of dance, musicianship, and conversation. They typically wore understated kimono, preferred light makeup, and usually dispensed with tabi (split-toe socks: 足袋), going barefoot instead, even in winter, as in Shigemasa's print. Frequently, they wore mens' jackets (haori: 羽織) and might even entertain guests while speaking in deeper voices like men. The series cartouche reads, "Pictures of Beauties from the East" (Tôhô no bijin no zu: 東方美人の圖) and has been dated circa late 1770s. It is unsigned, as are so many of the prints attributed to Shigemasa, but the style is distinctive and entirely consistent with the artist's signed works, so there is little doubt as to its designer. Less than a decade after the death of Harunobu, the figure and print-format size had increased substantially, signaling a new aesthetic in the conception of beauty and style for bijinga (prints of beautiful women: 美人画); see also the discussion for Koryûsai. Shigemasa's women have an restrained allure that places them among the masterpieces of ukiyo-e portrait prints.

Shigemasa's early works printed in two or three colors were a continuation of the "narrow-print" (hosoban: 細判) style established by earlier generations of Torii-school artists, for example, the aforementioned Torii Kiyomitsu, as well as Suzuki Harunobu, who were closest in time to Shigemasa. Although the large majority of Shigemasa's work was published after the tail-end of early-period ukiyo-e, his hosoban designs were very close in style and spirit to what had come before.

Kitao Shigemasa bijin nodagawa
Kitao Shigemasa: Plovers at the Noda River
Ukiyo Mu Tamagawa (浮世六玉川)
"Six Jewel Rivers of the Floating World"
Woodcut, hosoban, c. mid-1760s (300 x 140 mm)
Kitao Shigemasa: Matsumoto Kôshirô III as
Abe no Munetô in Kogane no hana kaijin arasmusha
"Gold Flowers: Triumphal Return of Fierce Warriors"
( 金花凱陣荒武者), Nakamura-za, Edo (11/1766)

The woodcut shown above left is a mitate (comparison picture: 見立) portraying two young women sharing an umbrella in the rain. They look up at plovers (chidori: 千鳥) in flight over a river. The mitate or allusion here is to the Noda River, one of the "Six Crystal Rivers" (Mu Tamagawa: 六玉川), a widely popular theme in Japanese paintings and prints. The poem-slip style cartouche at the far right situates the the subject within the popular art of the period, giving the title as "Six Jewel Rivers of the Floating World" (Ukiyo Mu Tamagawa: 浮世六玉川). The name of the Heian-period Buddhist monk (hôshi: 法師) and poet Noin (能因 988 - c. 1058, secular name Tachibana no Nagayasu, 橘永愷) is also inscribed in that cartouche, identifying the author of the poem in the square cartouche. The poem reads: "When evening comes the / salt-laden winds pass over / Michinoku, and / on the Crystal River at / Noda the plovers cry." (Yû sareba / shiokaze koshite / Michinoku no / Noda no Tamagawa — chidori naku nari). [Trans. in Waterhouse, see ref.] Michinoku was an old name for Mutsu province. In Japanese folklore, Chidori were said to to be born from the froth of the crests of waves. Here in Shigemasa's hosoban, the typology of the faces and bodies, and the manner of composition, owe much to Suzuki Harunobu.

Although Shigemasa is not typically associated with images for the kabuki theater, he did indeed produce a few single-sheet actor prints (yakusha-e: 役者絵). In the eleventh lunar month of 1766, Matsumoto Kôshirô III (松本幸四郎 1741-1806) played the role of the rebel samurai Abe no Munetô (安倍の宗任) in a season-opening (kaomise: 顔見世) premiere of the play "Gold Flowers: The Triumphal Return of Fierce Warriors" (Kogane no hana kaijin arasmusha: 金花凱陣荒武者) staged at the Nakamuraza, Edo (see above right). The production celebrated the arrival in Edo of the Kamigata actor Kirishima Gizaemon I (桐嶋儀左衛門) who acted from 1722 to 1769. Abe no Munetô (1032-1108), a historical figure, was a samurai of the Abe clan during the Heian period who defeated the Minamoto forces in the Battle of Tonomi Palisade (Tonomi saku: 鳥海冊). Shigemasa's drawing of Kôshirô III as Abe no Munetô could easily pass as a late Torii-school actor portrait of the 1750s-1760s.

Shigemasa was one of the leading print designers of his time, yet his works are less familiar than they deserve to be, given their charm and finely balanced compositions, often of an appealing simplicity. A large percentage of Shigemasa's surviving works are in album and book format, while many of his single-sheet prints are unsigned. He also collaborated with other ukiyo-e artists, among them Katsushika Shunshô, including the chûban-format series "The Cultivation of Silkworms" (Kaiko yashinaigusa: かいこやしない草), circa 1772 for which the artists provided six designs each. An example from the silkworm set is shown below — number 9, which depicts two young women boiling silkworm cocoons and extracting the silk thread. Here we can see the lingering influence of Harunobu in the diminutive figures, but the facial typology is more in the Shigemasa style.

Kitao Shigenaga silkworm cultivation
Kitao Shigemasa: Boiling silkworm cocoons and extracting the thread
Kaiko yashinaigusa ("The Cultivation of Silkworms": かいこやしない草) 1772
Number 9 from the set of 12
Woodblock print, chûban (250 x 195 mm)

Most important among all of Shigemasa's ehon is the collaborative (again with Shunshô) three-volume ehon "Mirror of Competing Beauties of the Green Houses" (Seirô bijin awase sugata kagami: 青楼美人合姿鏡) from about 1776. Widely considered to be among the most outstanding illustrated books in all of ukiyo-e, it was the first major release from the eminent publisher Tsutaya Jûsaburô (蔦屋重三郎 1750-1797). Shigemasa and Shunshô produced images of consistent uniformity in style throughout the volumes, so although it has been suggested that Shigemasa designed the spring and autumn pictures, it is difficult to confirm which images might be assigned to one or the other of the two artists. An example from Seirô bijin awase is the double-page image shown below, which portrays three courtesans of the Chôji-ya brothel. In keeping with the overarching theme of the three volumes, the young pleasure-women are shown in their private moments or "off-hours" when they were not obliged to service their customers. In this setting on a summer day, Senzan (せん山) is at her writing table, Chôzan (干山) is reading an old romance, and Toyoharu (とよ春) is working on her calligraphy. This voyeuristic view provides a titillating glimpse into a world of refinement and studied achievement among the higher ranking courtesans of the period.

Kitao Shigemasa seiro bijin awase
Kitao Shigemasa: Three courtesans of the Chôji-ya Brothel, 1776
Senzan (せん山), Chôzan (干山), and Toyoharu (とよ春)
Seirô bijin awase sugata kagami: 青楼美人合姿鏡)
Published by Tsutaya Jûsaburô (蔦屋重三郎)
Double-page from a three-volume ehon, 175 x 128 mm (closed book)

By the first decade of the nineteenth century, many ehon featuring birds and flowers had already been published, a few of real consequence and quality, and none better than kachô-ehon by Kitagawa Utamaro. Artists of the Nanga (南画) and Shijô (四条) schools also produced kachô-ehon of quality. Shigemasa's efforts, while uneven, do include some excellent images, although they are typically in the style of earlier kachô-e. The first volume of Shigemasa's "True Pictures of Birds and Flowers" ([Shashin] kachô zue:「写真」花鳥圖會) was published in 1805; the second volume did not appear until 1827 (posthumously). An example from the later publication, shown below, depicts a pair of Japanese robins (komadori: 駒鳥) frolicking at the edge of a river. There is little innovation in the composition, but the scene does have an appealing and playful expressiveness.

Kitao Shigemasa seiro bijin awase
Kitao Shigemasa: Komadori (Japanese robins: 駒鳥)
[Shashin] kachô zue: "True Pictures of Birds and Flowers":「写真」花鳥圖會), posthumous 1827
Double-page from a two-volume ehon, 225 x 155 mm (closed books), 1805 (v1) and 1827 (v2)

Given Shigemasa's small production of ôban-format bijinga, he can be credited with helping to introduce into ukiyo-e an expanded amplitude of the female figure and a more true-to-life typology of the face and body (see the Fukugawa geisha at the top of this page). In effect, these new visions of womanhood offered a vital alternative to the impossibly delicate waifs that had characterized Harunobu's chûban-format prints just a few years earlier. By the late 1770s, Shigemasa, along with Isoda Koryûsai, were pointing the way for future bijinga, which would be taken up so notably by Torii Kiyonaga and Kitagawa Utamaro. After that, Shigemasa's focus was mainly on numerous illustrations in his prolific contributions to ehon. © 2001-2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Brown, Louise Norton: Block Printing and Book Illustration in Japan. London: Routledge & Sons, 1924, pp. 148 and 161.
  • Gentles, Margaret: The Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints: Volume II. Art Institute of Chicago, 1965, pp. 275-292.
  • Hillier, Jack: The Art of the Japanese Book. New York: Sotheby's, 1987, Pls. 44-46, figs. 245-246, 249-250, and pp. 348-361.
  • Hillier, Jack and Smith, Lawrence: Japanese Prints: 300 Years of Albums and Books. London: British Museum, 1980, nos. 43-44.
  • Roberts, Laurence: A Dictionary of Japanese Artists: Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, Prints, Lacquer. Tokyo/New Urok: Weatherhill, 1976, p. 145.
  • Sorimachi, Shigeo: Catalogue of Japanese Illustrated Books in the Spenser Collection of the New York Public Library. New York: 1968, no. 439.
  • Toda, Kenji: Descriptive Catalog of the Ryerson Collection of Japanese and Chinese Illustrated Books. Art Institute of Chicago, 1931, pp. 180-181.
  • Waterhouse, David: The Harunobu Decade: A Catalogue of Woodcuts by Suzuki Harunobu and his followers in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2013, vol., 1 (text pp. 122-123), vol. 2 (illus. nos. 169-170).
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