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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 (aged 52–53)
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
Ase o fuku onna (Woman Wiping Sweat), Ukiyo-e, 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 beautiful women, 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, which they imitated. 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 seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and the art form 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-eighteenth century, full-colour nishiki-e prints became common. They were printed by using a large number of woodblocks, one for each colour.[3] Towards the close of the eighteenth century there was a peak in both quality and quantity of the work.[4] Kiyonaga was the pre-eminent portraitist of beauties during 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 Katsukawa 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, and popularized the dusting of mica in the backgrounds to produce a glittering effect.[7]


Ukiyo-e of yama-uba with blackened teeth and Kintarō (Yamanba and Kintaro Sakazuki series)
Flowers of Edo: Young Woman's Narrative Chanting to the Shamisen c. 1800

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 not known.[10]

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 featuring the same woman and child over several years of the child's growth among his works.

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, although trained in the upper-class Kanō school of Japanese painting, had become in middle age a practitioner of ukiyo-e and his art was aimed at the townspeople in Edo. His students included haiku poets and ukiyo-e artists such as Eishōsai Chōki.[11]

There are many authorities[who?] who believe that Utamaro was Sekien's son. 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.[citation needed]

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] which was 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 the autumn of 1782 the artist hosted a lavish banquet whose list of guests included artists such as Kiyonaga, Kitao Shigemasa, and Katsukawa Shunshō, as well as writers such as Ōta Nanpo and Hōseidō Kisanji (ja). 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 making a deep bow.[14]

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

At some point in the mid-1780s, probably 1783, he went to live with 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.

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 ended. Utamaro then went on to produce several series of well-known works, all featuring women of the Yoshiwara district.

Over the years, he also created 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. 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.[who?]

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 his birth year would be estimated as 1753.[17]

Apparently with no heirs, his tomb at the temple Senkōji (ja) was left untended. A century later, 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 more than two thousand prints during his working career. He also created a number of paintings and surimono, as well as many illustrated books, including more than 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 beauties generally are considered the finest and most evocative bijinga in all of ukiyo-e.

He succeeded in capturing the subtle aspects of personality and the transient moods of women of all classes, ages, and circumstances. His reputation has remained undiminished since. His work is known worldwide, and he generally is 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 the 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 during 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]