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Utamaro print showing


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Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿)


Utamaro_me_chubei.jpgKitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿), c. 1753–1806, is considered to be, by universal consensus, one of the giants from the ukiyo-e school, having produced more than 2,000 print designs (many of superb quality and innovative conception), paintings (about 50 survive), and illustrated books, including roughly 20 anthologies of kyôka (playful verses: 狂歌), 30 albums of shunga ("spring pictures," erotica: 春画), and 40 other genres, such as kibyôshi ("yellow covers," popular comic literature: 黄表紙).

Above all, Utamaro was the premiere designer of bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画) during the 1790s and early 1800s. Among the glories of his oeuvre are many ôkubi-e ("large head pictures" or bust portraits: 大首絵) such as the masterpiece on the right, circa 1793-94, titled momo-omou koi (Contemplative love: 物思恋) from the series of five known designs titled Kasen koi no bu (Anthology of poems: the love section: 歌撰恋之部). None of the women are courtesans or connected with the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter in Edo, as was often the case with bijinga. The drawing style is refined and the close-ups expressive, with hints of individuation among the women in their facial characteristics, a trait not usually found in bijinga. In this instance, the beauty is possibly middle-aged and married, and some say reflecting on a past love or present lover.

Utamaro studied with the Kanô-trained Toriyama Sekien (鳥山石燕), 1712-1788), a pen-name of Sano Toyofusa (佐野豊房), an 18th-century scholar, kyôka poet, and ukiyo-e artist of Japanese folklore. Utamaro's earliest known work is a small image in the haiku anthology Chiyo no haru (Eternal spring: 千代春 or simply ちよのはる) published in 1770, with 48 illustrations mostly by Toriyama Sekien and his pupils. Utamaro's contribution was a picture of three eggplants signed Shônen Sekiyô ga (painted by the youth Sekiyô: 少年石要画). His second art name was Kitagawa Toyoaki (北川豊章), which he used at least as early as 1775 with a cover illustration on a libretto for the Tomimoto (富本) school of chanting and the kabuki play Shikû-hatte koi no showake (Forty-eight famous love scenes: 四十八手恋所訳) at the Nakamura-za, Edo. The first use of the Utamaro name appears to be for a kibyôshi titled Minari daitsûjin ryaku-engi ("Short history of the grand connoisseurs": 身貌大通神略縁起) in 1781.

Utamaro insects

Around 1782, Utamaro began producing print designs for the publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô (蔦屋重三郎), and by the late 1780s he was providing illustrations for some of the best kyôkabon (books of playful verses: 狂歌本) ever published, such as the two-volume Ehon mushi erabi (Picture book of selected insects: 画本虫撰) in 1788 and the two-volume Momo chidori kyôka awase (Myriad birds, comparisons in playful verses: 百千鳥狂歌合) from 1791. An example from Ehon mushi erabi is shown above, a two-page spread depicting a tonbô (dragonfly: 蜻蛉) and chô (butterflies: 蝶). As with all the images in this compendium, one notices some influence of Chinese Ming publications, including the painting manual Jieziyuan Huazhuan (Mustard Seed Garden: 芥子園畫傳) of 1679, whose contents were first published in Japan as Kaishien gaden in 1748, or Japanese manuals derived from Chinese sources such as Minchô seidô gaen (The living garden of Ming painting: 明朝生動画園) of 1746 by Ôoka Shunboku (大岡春卜 1680–1763).

One of Utamaro's crowning achievements in book form was his Utamakura (Poem of the pillow: 歌まくら or 歌枕) from 1788, one of the finest erotic works ever produced in any culture. In a style both delicate and forthrightly expressive, it offers diverse subjects ranging from young romantic love to shocking sexual violence. Among the images is the famous intimate view of lovers in a private second-floor room of a teahouse (see below), much reproduced in reference books on ukiyo-e and erotica. The tender gesture of the woman's had placed upon her partner's face as well as his fingers gripping her shoulder are most unusual gestures for ukiyo-e, even in shunga. The transparency of the man's robe reveals more of the woman's leg and enhances the erotic mood. Inscribed on the fan is a suggestive poem written by Yadoya no Meshimori (宿屋飯盛 1754–1830) that reads Hamaguri ni / hashi o shikka to / hasamarete / shigi tachikanuru / aki no yûgure (Its beak caught firmly / in the clam shell / the snipe cannot / fly away / of an autumn evening: 蛤に  はしをしっかと  はさまれて  鴫立ちかぬる  秋の夕ぐれ).

The influence of Torii Kiyonaga was evident in Utamaro's oeuvre in the early 1780s, and while it lingered into the late years of that decade, by that time Utamaro had begun to realize a more individualized manner of drawing the idealized faces of bijin. The following diptych in aiban-format, Fujimi Chaya no misesaki (Storefront of the Fujimiya Teahouse: 冨士見茶屋の店先), was published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô circa 1789-90. The women indeed appear to possess an updated Kiyonaga appearance and demeanor, not yet attaining the distinctive visions that will epitomize the stylistic authority of Utamaro's bijin designs during the 1790s.

After around 1792 Utamaro set about designing many of the bijinga masterpieces long recognized as icons of ukiyo-e. In a pair of three-quarter-length portraits, Utamaro portrayed two of the great beauties of the day, each set against a white mica background and alongside kyôka poems. One celebrity was Ohisa, the daughter of Takashima Chôhei, the proprietor of a rice-cake shop in Yagenbori, Ryôgoku in Edo (see below on left). Ohisa apparently served at a teahouse that was part of the business. In 1793 she would have been sixteen years old. The poem in the cartouche reads Akiyô mo / cha mo koboretsutsu / samenu nari / yoi hatsuyume no / Takahshimaya tote (Charms and tea are brimming over / and neither gets cold / let me not wake / from this lucky dream of the New Year / at Takashimaya); signed by Karabana no Tadaaya. *

Equally alluring was Okita of the Naniwaya, located near the Zuijin Gate of the Asukasa Temple in Edo (see below on right). She would have been only fifteen years old in 1793. The headnote reads Naniwa-chô chaya ni yasuraide and the poem Naniwazu no / na ni ou mono wa / yuki kai ni / ashi no tomaranu / hito mo araji na (Resting at a teahouse in Naniwaya-chô: Myriad as the reeds of Naniwa Bay / are those who come running / at the name of this shop — / each passerby / has to stop); signed by Katsura no Mayuzumi.*

Takashimaya Ohisa (高嶋おひさ)
(published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô, c. 1793)
Naniwaya Okita (難波屋おきた)
(published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô, c. 1793)

The decade of the 1790s marked a turning point in Utamaro's career when he found ways to design bijinga with a renewed emphasis on the daily activities of beauties. One widely popular subject was the depiction of women in their private quarters as they dressed, fixed their hair, applied makeup, and so on. The use of mirrors reflecting the faces of young women was a particularly effective means of achieving a charming and mildly voyeuristic effect. The design below left is from a small group of images, all with yellow backgrounds. Perhaps even more popular were the named beauties of the era, such as the famous waitress Takashima Ohisa (高嶋おひさ) from the Takashima Teahouse in Asakusa (she was about 18 years old at the time of the print). A square cartouche with a rebus seems to read, (Takashima Hisa mijitaku no ban ("Takashima (O)hisa getting dressed in the evening"). The narrow rectangular cartouche reads Yoiyami no hi to Asakusa no ômonobi ("the days when the evening is dark [i.e., the 16th-18th of each month] and the day of the big Asakusa holiday [i.e., the 18th]").

Dressing the hair, c. 1794-95
(published by Uemura Yohei)
Takashima Ohisa, c. 1795
(published by Matsumura Tatsuemon)

Utamaro is justly famous for his portrayals on the theme of "mother and child." It is a subject that also reveals his interest in expressing the range and variety of human affection and intimacy. There are a large number of prints from his brush depicting mothers and children, such as mothers nursing their infants, playing games with their children, instructing their young in various matters or involving them in domestic chores, and dressing their children for festivals or celebrations. There is also a sub-genre of the mythological mountain woman Yamauba (山姥 or 山うば), a yôkai (demon: 妖怪) transformed by Utamaro into a beautiful and loving mother, and her legendary son, the superhumanly strong golden boy Kintarô (金太郎) supposedly raised by a yama-uba ("mountain witch") on Mount Ashigara. He later became a loyal follower of the Genji general Minamoto no Yorimitsu under his adult name Sakata no Kintoki (坂田金時). Utamaro produced as many as 50 designs on this formidable mother-child pair.

In the series Fuzoku bijin tokei (Customs of beauties around the clock: 風俗美人時計), circa 1798-99, Utamaro focused on women engaged in daily activities at twelve intervals, which were traditional divisions of the twenty-four-hour day. In the design shown below at left, a mekake (mistress: 妾) attends lovingly to her baby during the middle of the night (the so-called "Hour of the rat," Ne no koku, 子ノ刻). At the lower right, a late series titled Meisho fûkei, bijin jûnisô (Scenery of famous places and twelve physiognomies of beauties: 名所風景 美人十二相) circa 1803, includes a portrayal of a mother carrying her son on her back. Utamaro, now a master of the idiom, captures a moment of tenderness as she glances back at her child, Often, with Utamaro, there are small details that enhance the mood. Here, the boy's tiny fingers are just visible gripping her left shoulder, as the vulnerable child enjoys his little romp under his mother's care.

A mistress (妾) tending to her son
(published by Izumiya Ichibei, c. 1798-99)
Mother carrying her son
c. 1803 (no pub. seal)

The depiction of lovers involved in domestic tragedies was one of the principal themes of romantic passion in Japanese printmaking (much more so in Edo than in Osaka). These tales typically involved conflicts between social obligations (giri, 義理) and personal emotions or "human feelings" (ninjô, 人情), and at their most extreme, shinjû ("inside the heart," but signifying "double suicide": 心中). Utamaro's innovative compositions emphasized the emotional and psychological aspects of these characters. For more on this topic, see Utamaro's Tragic Lovers. Also see the portrayal of Ohan and Choemon below.

Expression, gesture, and placement serve as principal components of Utamaro's graphic language. A particular design element that plays an important role in his double portraits is the intimate gesture. Utamaro accomplishes this with imaginative arrangements and attention to detail, as with the placement of the woman's hand in the "Utamakura" erotic design shown above, or the young boy's fingers in the 1803 mother-and-son print just discussed. In his middle and late periods Utamaro explored the possibilities of depicting states of mind, down to specific emotions, as well as personality types, through the drawing of the face as well as with what we today would call "body language." This is seen, for example, in a design from the series Fûryû goyô no matsu (Elegant pines of five-fold needles: 風流五葉の松), in which a young maid secretly passes a letter to her mistress, possibly a geisha. The maid whispers something into her mistress's ear, likely a communication of love from a suitor. It is all endearingly captured — the maid lifting her head and stretching her neck, the geisha leaning forward, her expression one of focused attention as she reaches for the letter. This is quintessential Utamaro.

The example below right portrays the tragic lovers Ohan and Chôemon from the series Ryûkô moyô Utamaro gata (Fashionable patterns in the Utamaro style: 流行模様歌麿形). In real life, the young Shinanoya Ohan and the middle-aged Obiya Chôemon were the murder victims of a robber; however, popular imagination soon turned the incident into a story of ill-fated lovers. In various popular tales and theatrical adaptations, Obiya Chôemon, a married, forty-year-old obi merchant in Kyoto, falls in love with Ohan, his next-door neighbor's fourteen-year-old daughter, and their affair results in her pregnancy. Scandalized, Ohan decides to kill herself, and Chôemon vows to join her in death. Soon afterwards, the lovers drown themselves in the Katsura River. Nevertheless, Utamaro has chosen to portray the lovers at a more playful moment, as Ohan drapes herself over Chôemon in a gesture of coquettish intimacy. It is a startlingly original composition for a single-sheet print of this period.

Maid passing a letter, c. 1797-98
(Elegant pines of five-fold needles)
Ohan and Choemon, c. 1798-99
(Fashionable patterns in the Utamaro style)

Kitagawa Utamaro was the preeminent ukiyo-e artist in the portrayal of women. He developed a typology of the female face and form that was new in style and iconographic in its impact, and it was an achievement unsurpassed in the ukiyo-e school. Utamaro’s methodology for the depiction of tragic lovers was one of his most innovative contributions to ukiyo-e printmaking. His emphasis on emotion and his balance of sentiment with naturalism resulted in sophisticated, imaginative, and expressive portraits of passionate couples that were unprecedented in earlier ukiyo-e. Utamaro's pictorial vocabulary was founded upon a "syntax of affection" that represented an important development in printmaking during a period when realism in various guises was increasingly introduced into literature and the arts in Japan. The greater intimacy of the ôkubi-e and half-length formats, the close observation of gesture and posture, and the underlying mood of eroticism all supported a unique psychological approach toward the portrayal of women and celebrated couples. © 2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Yasuko Betchaku and Joan Mirviss: Utamaro: Songs of the Garden. New York: Viking Press, 1984.
  • Davis, J.: "Kitagawa Utamaro and His Contemporaries, 1780-1804," in: Amy Reigle Newland (ed.), The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005, pp. 135-166.
  • Fiorillo, J.: "Utamaro's Syntax of Affection for Tragic Lovers," in: Ukiyo-e Society of America Bulletin, Spring 2000, pp. 1-8 (abbreviated adaptation of a lecture presented before the Ukiyo-e Society of America on November 14, 1999).
  • Gina Collia-Suzuki: The Complete Woodblock Prints of Kitagawa Utamaro: A Descriptive Catalogue. Weston-super-Mare: Nezu Press, 2009.
  • Jack Hillier: The Art of the Japanese Book. London, Sotheby's Publications, 1987.
  • Shibui Kiyoshi (渋井清): Utamaro, no. 13 in series Ukiyo-e zuten (Collected illustrations of floating world prints: ウキヨエ図典). Tokyo: Kazama Shobô (風間書房), 1964.
  • Shugo Asano, Timothy Clark: The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro. London: British Museum Press, 1995. [*Note: Some of the translations of poems or inscriptions come from this publication.]
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