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In this Japanese name, the family name is "Kitagawa".
Kitagawa Utamaro
Native name 喜多川歌麿
Born Kitagawa Ichitarō
c. 1753
Died 31 October 1806
Resting place
Senkōji (ja)
35°40′47.09″N 139°35′40.71″E / 35.6797472°N 139.5946417°E / 35.6797472; 139.5946417
Nationality Japanese
Style Ukiyo-e
Woman Wiping Sweat, woodblock print, 1798
Takashima Ohisa using two mirrors to observe her coiffure night of the Asakusa Marketing Festival

Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese: 喜多川 歌麿; c. 1753 – 31 October 1806) was a Japanese artist. He is one of the most highly regarded practitioners of the ukiyo-e genre of woodblock prints, especially for his portraits of female beauties, or bijin-ga. He also produced nature studies, particularly illustrated books of insects.

Utamaro's work reached Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, where it was very popular, enjoying particular acclaim in France. He influenced the European Impressionists, particularly with his use of partial views and his emphasis on light and shade. The reference to the "Japanese influence" among these artists often refers to the work of Utamaro.


Ukiyo-e art flourished in Japan during the Edo period from the 17th to 19th centuries, and took as its primary subjects courtesans, kabuki actors, and others associated with the "floating world" lifestyle of the pleasure districts. Alongside paintings, mass-produced woodblock prints were a major form of the genre.[1] Ukiyo-e art was aimed at the common townspeople at the bottom of the social scale, especially of the administrative capital of Edo. Its audience, themes, aesthetics, and mass-produced nature kept it from consideration as serious art.[2]

In the mid-18th century full-colour nishiki-e prints became common, printed using a large number of woodblocks, one for each colour.[3] Towards the close of the 18th century there was a peak in both quality and quantity of work.[4] Kiyonaga was the pre-eminent portraitist of beauties in the 1780s, and the tall, graceful beauties in his work had a great influence on Utamaro, who was to succeed him in fame.[5] Shunshō of the Katuskawa school introduced the ōkubi-e "large-headed picture" in the 1760s;[6] he and other members of the Katsukawa school such as Shunkō popularized the form for yakusha-e actor prints, as well as the dusting of mica in the backgrounds to produce a glittering effect.[7]


Little is known of Utamaro's life. He was born Kitagawa Ichitarō,[a] probably about 1753. As an adult, he was known by the given names Yūsuke[b] and later Yūki.[c][9] His birthplace and the names of his parents are unknown.[10]

Sometime during his childhood Utamaro came under the tutelage of the artist Toriyama Sekien, who described his pupil as bright and devoted to art.[10] Sekien's art was aimed at the townspeople in Edo, despite his training in the upper-class Kanō school of Japanese painting. His students included haiku poets ukiyo-e artists such as Eishōsai Chōki.[11]

Under the name Kitagawa Toyoaki [d] Utamaro's first published work was the cover to a kabuki playbook entitled Forty-eight Famous Love Scenes[e] distributed at the Edo playhouse Nakamura-za.[12] As Toyoaki, Utamaro continued as an illustrator of popular literature for the rest of the decade, and occasionally produced single-sheet yakusha-e portraits of kabuki actors.[13]

The young, ambitious publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō enlisted Utamaro, and in autumn 1782 the artist hosted a lavish banquet whose list of guests included artists such as Kiyonaga, Kitao Shigemasa, and Katsukawa Shunshō, and writers such as Ōta Nanpo and Hōseidō Kisanji. It was at this banquet that it is believed the artist first announced his new art name, Utamaro. Per custom he distributed a specially-made print for the occasion, in which before a screen bearing the names of his guests is a self-portrait of Utamaro giving a deep bow.[14]

Utamaro's first work for Tsutaya appeared in 1783: The Fantastic Travels of a Playboy in the Land of Giants,[f] a kibyōshi picture book done in collaboration with writer and friend Shimizu Enjū.[g]. In the book, Tsutaya described the pair as making their debuts.[h][16]

Print from Yamanba and Kintaro Sakazuki series

Apparently, Utamaro married, although little is known about his wife and there is no record of their having had children. There are, however, many prints of tender and intimate domestic scenes of the same woman and child over several years of the child's growth among his works.

Generally, it is agreed that while he was still a child, he became a pupil of the painter Toriyama Sekien. There are many authorities who believe that Utamaro was his son as well. He did live in Sekien's house while he was growing up and the relationship between the two artists continued until Sekien's death in 1788. Sekien originally was trained in the aristocratic Kanō School of painting, but in middle age he started to lean toward the popular Ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese woodblock prints. Sekien is known to have had a number of other pupils, who failed to achieve distinction.

At the approximate age of twenty-two, his earliest known major professional artistic work was created, a cover for a Kabuki playbook in 1775 that was published under a pseudonym, the of Toyoaki. He then produced a number of actor and warrior prints, along with theatre programmes, and other such materials. From the spring of 1781, he switched his to Utamaro, and began painting and designing woodblock prints of women, but these early works are not considered of important value.

At some point in the mid-1780s, probably 1783, he went to live with the young and rising publisher, Tsutaya Jūzaburō. It is estimated that he lived there for approximately five years. He seems to have become a principal artist for the Tsutaya firm. Evidence of his prints for the next few years is sporadic, as he mostly produced illustrations for books of kyoka, literally 'crazy verse', a parody of the classical waka form. None of his work produced during the period 1790–1792 has survived.

Flowers of Edo: Young Woman's Narrative Chanting to the Samisen c. 1800

In about 1791 Utamaro gave up designing prints for books and concentrated on making single portraits of women displayed in half-length, rather than the prints of women in groups favoured by other ukiyo-e artists. In 1793 he achieved recognition as an artist, and his semi-exclusive arrangement with the publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō was terminated. He then went on to produce several series of well known works, all featuring women of the Yoshiwara district.

Over the years, he also occupied himself with a number of volumes of animal, insect, and nature studies and shunga, or erotica. Shunga prints were quite acceptable in Japanese culture, not associated with a negative concept of pornography as found in western cultures, but considered rather as a natural aspect of human behavior, and circulated among all levels of Japanese society.

In 1797, Tsutaya Jūzaburō died and apparently, Utamaro was very upset by the loss of his long-time friend and supporter. Some commentators feel that after this event, his work never reached the heights previously attained.

In 1804, at the height of his success, he ran into legal trouble by publishing prints related to a banned historical novel. The prints, entitled Hideyoshi and his Five Concubines, depicted the wife and concubines of the military ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who lived from 1536 to 1598. Consequently, Utamaro was accused of insulting the real Hideyoshi's dignity. He was sentenced to be handcuffed for fifty days (some accounts say he briefly was imprisoned). According to some sources, the experience crushed him emotionally and ended his career as an artist.

He died in 1806 on the twentieth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar (October 31 on the Gregorian calendar),[citation needed] and was given the Buddhist posthumous name Shōen Ryōkō Shinshi.[i][17] He is believed to have been fifty-three, from which is birth year of 1753 is supposed.[17] With no wife or heirs his tomb at the temple Senkōji (ja) was left untended. In 1917, Admirers of Utamaro had the decayed grave repaired.[17]


After Utamaro's death, his pupil, Koikawa Shunchō, continued to produce prints in the style of his mentor and took over the , Utamaro, until 1820. These prints, produced during that fourteen-year-period as if Utamaro was the artist, now are referred to as the work of Utamaro II. After 1820 Koikawa Shunchō changed his to Kitagawa Tetsugorō, producing his subsequent work under that name.

Retrospective observations[edit]

One Hundred Stories of Demons and Spirits

Utamaro produced over two thousand prints during his working career, along with a number of paintings, surimono, as well as many illustrated books, including over thirty shunga books, albums, and related publications. 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 generally are considered the finest and most evocative bijinga 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.


Utamaro was recognized as a master in his own age. He appears to have achieved a national reputation at a time when even most popular Edo ukiyo-e artists were little known outside the city.[18]

Print series[edit]

A partial list of his print series and their dates includes

  • Chosen Poems (1791–1792)
  • Ten Types of Women's Physiognomies (1792–1793)
  • Famous Beauties of Edo (1792–1793)
  • Ten Learned Studies of Women (1792–1793)
  • Anthology of Poems: The Love Section (1793–1794)
  • Snow, Moon, and Flowers of the Green Houses (1793–1795)
  • Array of Supreme Beauties of the Present Day (1794)
  • Twelve Hours of the Green Houses (1794–1795)
  • Flourishing Beauties of the Present Day (1795–1797)
  • An Array of Passionate Lovers (1797–1798)
  • Ten Forms of Feminine Physiognomy (1802)



  1. ^ Kitagawa Ichitarō (北川市太郎?); note the spelling 北川 differs from the spelling 喜多川 Utamaro used as an artist.[8]
  2. ^ Yūsuke (勇助?)[8]
  3. ^ Yūki (勇記?)[8]
  4. ^ Kitagawa Toyoaki (北川豊章?); "北川豊章" may also read "Toyoakira".[12]
  5. ^ Forty-eight Famous Loves Scenes (四十八手 恋所訳 Shijū Hatte Koi no Showake?)
  6. ^ Migi no Tōri Tashika ni Uso Shikkari Gantori-chō (右通慥而啌多雁取帳?)[14]
  7. ^ Shimizu Enjū (志水燕十?)
  8. ^ Utamaro and Enjū appeared to have worked on a previous book together in 1781: A Short History of the Sartorial Exploits of a Great Connoisseur of Inari Machi (身貌大通神略縁起 Minari Daitsūjin Ryakuengi?), which Utamaro signed as "Utamaro, Dilettante of Shinobugaoka". Kiyoshi Shibui (ja) suggests the publication of the work may have been delayed.[15]
  9. ^ Shōen Ryōkō Shinshi (秋円了教信士?)[8]


  1. ^ Fitzhugh 1979, p. 27.
  2. ^ Kobayashi 1982, pp. 67–68.
  3. ^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 80–83.
  4. ^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 91.
  5. ^ Lane 1962, p. 220.
  6. ^ Kondō 1956, p. 14.
  7. ^ Gotō 1975, p. 81.
  8. ^ a b c d Gotō 1975, p. 74.
  9. ^ Gotō 1975, p. 74; Kobayashi 1982, p. 72.
  10. ^ a b Kobayashi 1982, p. 72.
  11. ^ Kobayashi 1982, pp. 72–73.
  12. ^ a b Kobayashi 1982, p. 74.
  13. ^ Kobayashi 1982, p. 75.
  14. ^ a b Kobayashi 1982, p. 76.
  15. ^ Kobayashi 1982, p. 79.
  16. ^ Kobayashi 1982, pp. 76, 79.
  17. ^ a b c Kobayashi 1982, p. 93.
  18. ^ Kobayashi 1982, p. 69.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Jack Hillier, Utamaro: Color Prints and Paintings (Phaidon, London, 1961)
  • Muneshige Narazaki, Sadao Kikuchi, (translated John Bester), Masterworks of Ukiyo-E: Utamaro (Kodansha, Tokyo, 1968)
  • Shugo Asano, Timothy Clark, The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro (British Museum Press, London, 1995)
  • Julie Nelson Davis, "Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty" (Reaktion Books, London, and University of Hawai'i Press, 2007)
  • Gina Collia-Suzuki, "Utamaro Revealed" (Nezu Press, 2008)
  • Gina Collia-Suzuki, "The Complete Woodblock Prints of Kitagawa Utamaro: A Descriptive Catalogue" (Nezu Press, 2009) - complete catalogue raisonné

External links[edit]