Kitagawa Utamaro; biography and print artworks

(Last Updated On: 14/11/2018)

Biography of Kitagawa Utamaro(1753?-1806)

When talking about portraying beautiful women of ukiyo-e prints, we can’t describe it without touching on Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿). He developed the new ways to draw Edo women and it made him as a maestro of bijinga(printing of beautiful women portrait).





The time of Kitagawa Toyoaki(北川豊章)

It is unclear when and where he was born exactly but the most experts think his birthplace as Edo(Tokyo). From the beginning, he had the family name Kitagawa but the different kanji “北川”.  


He studied the drawing under Toriyama Sekien(鳥山石燕), who produced the famous ukiyo-e artworks of the monsters, in his childhood. 


In 1775, he experienced the working of ukiyo-e, “Forty-eight Famous Loves Scenes”,  for the first time as Kitagawa Toyoaki. Toyoaki drew first Nishiki-e(color print) of Kabuki actor portrait “Yoshizawa Iroha I as Osato, daughter”.



But he mostly had drawn the pictures for the illustrationa cuts in this period and was affected by Katsukawa School.



Utamaro and Tsutaya Juzaburo

While Japanese name era changed into Tenmei(1781-1789), he also started to use the new name, Utamaro. It was the golden age of Torii Kiyonaga in the field of Bijinga. Kitagawa Utamaro became to follow the drawing way of Kiyonaga. 


Then Utamaro belonged exclusively for Tsutaya Juzaburo(蔦屋重三郎). The man around his age was the young publisher and discovered his artistic talent. The publisher launched the project of the mysterious ukiyo-e artist Toshusai Sharaku(?-?) and made the prints of the Japanese great painter Katsushika Hokusai(1760-1849) afterward.


Utamaro began to draw pictures under Juzaburo and he soaked up the various styles of the beautiful women portrait prints. And gradually played an active part in that field.


In addition, they published many kyoka (comic tanka) picture books using many colors. They were realistic artworks with subjects of flowers, fish, birds, and beasts.


The trilogy of “Picture Book: Selected Insects”(『画本虫撰』, Ehon mushi erami), “Gift of shell gathering”( 『潮干のつと』, Shiohi no tsuto) and “All sorts of birds”(『百千鳥』, Momochidori), were drawn from 1788 to 1790, and masterpiece of Utamaro’s kyoka.


From “Picture Book: Selected Insects”




From “Picture Book: Selected Insects”




His new style “Ookubi-e” and glory days

After that, the new drawing way of Bijinga immediately pushed Kitagawa Utamaro up to a first-class painter. It was a technique called “Ookubi-e”, every ukiyo-e artists draw a woman’s whole body until then, he imaged the upper half of the body that zoomed in on the model.


It made it possible to express the women’s expressions and fingers finely, and convey the inner side more deeply.


And to draw women’s softness and richness for the portrait, he used various techniques including using mica powder, making the background yellow and coloring the outlines with red. According to one theory that Juzaburo gave the ideas and coloring materials for the ukiyo-e artist.


The masterpieces that he painted in this period, which is the heyday of Utamaro, are the series of “Anthology of love”(歌撰恋之部, Kasen Koi no bu), “Ten Learned Studies of Women “(婦人相学十躰, Fujin sogaku jittei), “Six most beautiful women”(高名美人六家撰, Komei Bijin rokkasen), “Famous Beauties of Edo”(当時全盛美人揃, Toji zensei Bijin zoroi), and especially “Twelve Hours of the Green Houses “(『青楼十二時』, Seiro juu-niji) which made one day of Yoshiwara’s prostitute.


So French author Edmond Goncourt called him”painter of official brothel”. However, he created the prictures of the middle class women as much as the portraits of courtesans.


The Ohisa and Otaka who became models of “Three beauties of the present day” were originally just the town girls. But they became the famous in Edo city by the prints of Utamaro.


Three beauties of the present day

Three beauties of the present day



Two beauties



Courtesan Sugawara




“Ten women’s physiognomy”contains one of the most famous his artworks of prints, Woman Playing a Poppin.


“Woman Playing a Poppin”


At that time,  the member of shogun’s council started the reform of Kansei and prohibited the people’s luxury. The regulation cover ukiyo-e also. However, Utamaro and Shigesaburo have devised a method to effectively express it with few colors, taking advantage of that.


The last years in disappointment

A tragedy happened to him at the peak of his popularity. In 1797, his strong supporter Tsutaya Juzaburo died. With the death of the editor who gave a lot of advice to the ukiyo-e artist, he lost the person to rely on the work.


But, ironically, the reform of Kansei finished four years ago, and the demand for Utamaro’s bijinga had increased remarkably. Because his exclusive publisher didn’t exist already, several editors brought him a request for painting, and the number of his works rose sharply.


His woodblock prints had undergone a major change, as Juzaburo’s assistance ceases to exist as well as having to make many works.


While descending downhill, he finally received a crushing blow in 1804. The shogunate decided that he was guilty because he handled “Picture of Hideyoshi and his Five Wives Viewing the Cherry-blossom at Higashiyama”(太閤五妻洛東遊観之図, Taiko gosai rakuto yukan no zu). As Toyotomi Hideyoshi had turned against Tokugawa Ieyasu.


“Picture of Hideyoshi and his Five Wives Viewing the Cherry-blossom at Higashiyama”


Utamaro entered the prison due to that crime, and after leaving there, he had to live with chains in his wrists for 50 days.


Even after the term of imprisonment ended, his energy didn’ come back and died in 1806 with drawing a few pictures. A painter who took the citizens of Edo captive with a revolutionary beautiful woman portrait is sleeping in the grave of Shenkoji temple in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.



The gallery of Utamaro’s woodblock prints


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The Complete Woodblock Prints of Kitagawa Utamaro: A Descriptive Catalogue (Paperback)

Kitagawa Utamaro was the leading light of the popular Ukiyo-e school of woodblock print designers during its golden age, famous throughout Japan within his own lifetime, an immeasurable influence upon nineteenth century French artists, such as Vincent Van Gogh, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, and is a continuing source of inspiration and admiration throughout the world today for his portraits of sumptuously garbed courtesans and sensitively drawn depictions of everyday life in eighteenth century Edo. This volume, the first catalogue to document all of Utamaro’s known print designs in the broadsheet format, provides a comprehensive descriptive listing of the artist’s works, along with more than a hundred and thirty reproductions of his prints, with accompanying indices to aid in the location of specific works by publisher’s mark, subject, or title. This groundbreaking publication, the product of more than two decades of exhaustive research, forms a record of the artist’s works that will serve as a lasting reference source for connoisseurs, curators, and dealers alike. Gina Collia-Suzuki is an artist and writer who lives and works on the southwest coast of England. She has been an avid collector of Japanese woodblock prints, in particular those designed by Kitagawa Utamaro, for more than two decades. Initially a student of Western art, she encountered Japanese woodblock prints for the first time in 1985 and was immediately taken by their striking and bold designs, the compositional skills of their designers and the abilities of the craftsmen responsible for carving the blocks. In 1986 she met Jack Hillier, the world-renowned Ukiyo-e scholar, who became her mentor, and their friendship lasted until Hillier’s passing in 1995. For more than twenty years she has devoted herself to the study of the woodblock prints of Kitagawa Utamaro, and is the author of ‘Utamaro Revealed: A Guide to Subjects, Themes and Motifs’.

New From: $48.56 USD In Stock
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Utamaro Revealed (Paperback)

Kitagawa Utamaro is one of the most well-known figures in the history of Japanese art, renowned for his portraits of beautiful women. He is recognised as having been the leading light of the Ukiyo-e School during its golden age, and his influence upon the work of Western artists has been beyond measure. He produced in the region of 2,000 woodblock prints, approximately one third of which take their subjects from the licensed pleasure quarter of Edo, with the remainder being made up of images of popular beauties, pairs of famous lovers, historical and mythical figures, domestic scenes, and the physiognomic studies for which he is best-known. With 90 reproductions of the artist’s prints, designs grouped and discussed according to subject, and with illustrations of publishers’ marks, artist’s signatures, and the names of figures commonly inscribed upon his works, this reference guide provides the most comprehensive resource for identifying the subjects portrayed in Utamaro’s prints to date.

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Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty (Hardcover)

One of the most influential artists working in the genre of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) in late-eighteenth-century Japan, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?–1806) was widely appreciated for his prints of beautiful women. In images showing courtesans, geisha, housewives, and others, Utamaro made the practice of distinguishing social types into a connoisseurial art. In 1804, at the height of his success, Utamaro, along with several colleagues, was manacled and put under house arrest for fifty days for making prints of the military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi enjoying the pleasures of the “floating world.” The event put into stark relief the challenge that popular representation posed to political authority and, according to some sources, may have precipitated Utamaro’s sudden decline.

In this book Julie Nelson Davis makes a close study of selected print sets, and by drawing on a wide range of period sources reinterprets Utamaro in the context of his times. Reconstructing the place of the ukiyo-e artist within the world of the commercial print market, she demonstrates how Utamaro’s images participated in the economies of entertainment and desire in the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo).

Offering a new approach to issues of the status of the artist and the construction of identity, gender, sexuality, and celebrity in the Edo period, Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty is a significant contribution to the field and a key work for readers interested in Japanese art and culture.

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