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Utamaro: Master Printmaker and Painter - October 2008 Newsletter


In our past newsletters, we introduced two masters of the ukiyo-e (woodblock print) genre, Hokusai and Hiroshige.  But let us not forget about another important and talented artist, Kitagawa Utamaro.  Of his fellow ukiyo-e artists, he alone was able to achieve national recognition in his lifetime.

Utamaro was born in 1753 under the name Kitagawa Ichitaro.  While very little is known about his parents and early childhood, the general consensus is that Utamaro began his journey into the arts by becoming an apprentice of painter Toriyama Sekien, whom he lived with while growing up.
Under the pseudonym Toyoaki, Utamaro’s first professional artistic work was a cover for a Kabuki playbill in 1775.  He then produced a number of theater programs and portraits of warriors and famous actors.  In the spring of 1781, he changed his pseudonym to Utamaro and started painting and designing woodblock prints of women.

Around 1783, he formed a partnership with a young publisher named Tsutaya Jūzaburō and produced book illustrations for many years.  Then in 1791, Utamaro concentrated his work on half-length single portraits of women.  This was in contrast to other ukiyo-e artists, who favored prints of women in groups.  Two years later in 1793, he received wide-spread fame for his series of paintings of beautiful women (bijinga) from the pleasure-district of Yoshiwara.  In addition, he also recorded the everyday lives of ordinary women at work or at home, including some of the most tender scenes of lovers to be found in Japanese prints.

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.  Utamaro’s mastery with color and expression gave the prints a soft, subtle characteristic unlike that created by any other ukiyo-e artist before him.  He experimented with new techniques to display the flesh tones and depicted women in a sensitive manner, accenting sensuous beauty.
Utamaro produced over two thousand prints during his working career, along with a number of paintings, surimono (privately commissioned Japanese prints, as opposed to commercially published ukiyo-e), and many beautifully illustrated books.  Some of these books include poetry and nature books such as Ehon mushi erami (1788, Insect Book), Kyōgetsubō(1789, Moon-Mad Monk), Ginsekai (1790, Silver World), and Momo chidori kyōka awase (Bird Book). 

In 1804, at the height of his success, he ran into trouble with the law by publishing prints related to a banned historical novel.  The print, entitled Hideyoshi and his 5 Concubines, depicted the military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi with his wife and concubines.  Consequently, Utamaro was accused of insulting Hideyoshi's dignity and was briefly imprisoned. According to some sources, the experience humiliated him so deeply that it ended his career as an artist.  He died two years later in 1806 in Edo at the age of 53.

His were among the first Japanese prints to become familiar in the West, as they were especially popular with the Dutch exporters of Nagasaki.  He influenced the European Impressionists, particularly with his use of partial views, with an emphasis on light and shade.  Even today, Utamaro's woodblock prints remain among the most highly sought of all ukiyo-e imagery among collectors worldwide.

Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen is pleased to carry a variety of noren with prints by this amazing artist.  Noren are traditional Japanese fabric dividers hung on walls, in doorways, or in windows. They usually have one or more vertical slits cut into the fabric to allow for easier passage or viewing.  Now you, too, can admire the detailed and delicate designs of kimono clad beauties that have fascinated fans of Utamaro for generations.

In addition, you will find similar artwork on many other products as you peruse through the vast collection of items offered by Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen.  From chopsticks to teaware, images of lovely geisha and other exquisite ukiyo-e designs can be found on many everyday items that will add a touch of beauty to your day.  Pick up one of these treasures today!



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Fanning Woman Noren(5978)
Utamaro Matsuke Noren(5981)
Three Favorite Beauties Noren(5974)
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