Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Utamaro, Kitagawa

Young Woman Blowing a Glass Pipe
about 1792-1793
ukiyo-e (woodblock print)
private collection

Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753 - 1806) was a Japanese printmaker and painter, who is considered one of the greatest artists of woodblock prints (ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world”). His name was romanized as Outamaro. He is known especially for his masterfully composed studies of women, known as bijinga. He also occupied himself with nature studies and published many very famous illustrated books, particularly books of insects. Biographical details for Utamaro are extremely limited, and each reference one consults on him gives an substantially different account.

Probably born in a provincial town, he went to Edo (now Tokyo) with his mother. There, he started painting and designing rather unoriginal wood-block prints of women. His first major professional artistic work, at the age of 22, in 1775, seems to have been the cover for a Kabuki playbook. He then produced a number of actor and warrior prints, along with theater programs, and other such material. From the spring of 1781, he started painting and designing fairly forgettable woodblock prints of women.

His 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. He died 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, many illustrated books, etc. 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.