Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?-1806)

Kitagawa Utamaro (1750-1806) was a printmaker and painter, and is considered one of the greatest artists of ukiyo-e. He is known especially for his masterfully composed bijin-ga.

Biographical details for Utamaro are extremely limited, and each reference one consults on him gives an substantially different account.

Various accounts claim that was born in either Edo, Kyoto, Osaka (the three main cities of Japan), or a provincial town (no one is sure exactly which one) in around 1753. Another long-standing tradition has is that he was born in the Yoshiwara, the courtesan district of Edo, the son of a tea-house owner, but there is no evidence of this. His original name was Kitagawa Ichitaro.

It is generally agreed that he became a pupil of the painter Toriyama Sekien while he was still a child, and there are many authorities who believe that Utamaro was his son as well. He lived in Sekien's house while he was growing up, and the relationship continued until Sekien's death in 1788.

Sekien was originally trained in the aristocratic Kano school of painting, but in middle age he started to lean toward the popular (or ukiyo-e) school. Sekien is known to have had a number of other pupils, none of any distinction.

Utamaro, in common with most Japanese, changed his name as he became mature, and took the name Ichitaro Yusuke as he became older. He apparently also married, although little is known about his wife, and he apparently had no children.

His first major professional artistic work, at the age of 22, in 1775, seems to have been the cover for a Kabuki playbook, under the go of Toyoaki. He then produced a number of actor and warrior prints, along with theatre programmes, and other such material. From the spring of 1781, he switched his go to Utamaro, and started painting and designing fairly forgettable woodblock prints of women.

At some point in the middle 1780's, probably 1783, he went to live with the young rising publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo, with whom he apparently lived for about 5 years. He seems to have become a principal artist for the Tsutaya concern. His output of prints for the next few years was sporadic, as he produced mostly illustrations for books of kyoka (literally 'crazy verse', a parody of the classical waka form). He seems to have produced nothing at all that has survived in the period 1790-1792.

In about 1791 Utamaro gave up designing prints for books and concentrated on making half-length single portraits of women rather than prints of women in groups, as favoured by other ukiyo-e artists. It was in 1793 that he really achieved success as an artist, and at this point his semi-exclusive arrangement with the publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo was broken. He then went on to produce a number of very famous series, all featuring women of the Yoshiwara district.

Over the years, he also occupied himself with a number of volumes of nature studies and shunga. In 1797, Tsutaya Juzaburo died, and Utamaro apparently was very upset by the loss of his long-time friend and supporter. Some commentators feel that his work after this never reached the heights it did before.

In 1804, at the height of his success, he ran into legal trouble by publishing prints related to a banned historical novel. The prints depicting the military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi's wife and concubines; consequently, he was accused of insulting Hideyoshi's dignity. He was sentenced to be handcuffed for 50 days (some accounts say he was briefly imprisoned). According to some sources, the experience crushed him emotionally and ended his career as an artist.

He died two years later, on the 20th day of the 9th month, 1806, aged about fifty-three, in Edo.

Utamaro produced over two thousand prints during his working career, along with a number of paintings, surimono, many illustrated books, including over thirty shunga books and albums, etc.

Among his best known works are the series "Ten Studies in Female Physiognomy"; "A Collection of Reigning Beauties"; "Great Love Themes of Classical Poetry" (sometimes called "Women in Love" containing individual prints such as 'Revealed Love' and 'Pensive Love'); and "Twelve Hours in the Pleasure Quarters".

He alone, of his contemporary ukiyo-e artists, achieved a national reputation during his lifetime. His sensuous female beauties are generally considered the finest and most evocative bijin-ga in all of ukiyo-e. He succeeded in capturing subtle aspects of personality, and transient moods, of women of all classes, ages, and circumstances. His reputation has remained undiminished since; his work is known worldwide, and he is generally regarded as one of the half-dozen greatest ukiyo-e artists of all time.

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