Utamaro Kitagawa, Parody of Act VII of Chushingura


Artist: Utamaro Kitagawa (1753 - 1806)
Title: A Parody of Act VII of Chushingura
Series: Eight Views of Courtesans with Mirrors
Date: Late 18th century
Dimensions: 25.1 x 37.4 cm

Original Japanese woodblock print.

Act VII of the Kanedon Chushingura is full of plot and intrigue. The play recounts the story of the forty-seven rōnin, legendary vigilantes of the Edo period (1603-1868). With their cause almost being foiled, the drama escalates at this point of the play with letters, spies and espionage intensifying the peril of their revenge. Utamaro tightly weaves this literary backdrop into his series 'Eight Views of Courtesans with Mirrors'; such series' titles encouraged interesting thematic choices, from simple portraiture to scenes with dramatic or historical allusions. In this design, Utamaro presents a scene central to Act VII, where Okaru, the wife of one of the rōnin, attempts to spy on Yuranosuke, another of the rōnin who seems to have his lost his resolve in their cause. Okaru cleverly uses a mirror to read the letter in its reflection. Okaru's strong dedication to the rōnin's cause is shown throughout the play as she risks her life to advance it. In order to garner funds, she willingly places herself in a courtesan house, her hairstyle here indicative of her profession. Her kimono has been patterned with stylised clusters of hydrangeas, a flower strongly associated with the rainy season in Japan.

Utamaro I Kitagawa (1753 - 1806)

Utamaro Kitagawa is one of the most significant figures in the history of Japanese art. He is best known for his bijinga (prints of beautiful women) and a series of nature studies. He was and remains one of the artists best known outside of Japan, along with Hokusai Katsushika and Hiroshige I Utagawa. 

Born in 1753, he lived most of his life in Edo (today’s Tokyo) and in his childhood studied art under Sekien Toriyama (1712-1788). He later favoured Masanobu Kitao’s and Kiyonaga Torii’s aesthetic who were both famous for their elegantly elongated images of women. In 1788 Utamaro achieved wide recognition for his work when a number of albums of the highest compositional and technical quality aided him in this achievement. These albums were published by Tsutaya Juzaburo, the most famous publisher of his day, and with whom Utamaro would create a large amount of outstanding work. They joined forces to produce innovative designs, which included close-up portraits (okubi-e), three-quarter length portraits with shimmering mica powder background and a vast array of pictures of famous courtesans from Yoshiwara, the licensed red-light district. His style during this time is defined by graceful and elegant ladies, with rich and elaborate garments, posed in such a way that also revealed the inner beauty of the sitter. His favourite motifs were women at their everyday business, making themselves up, bathing, arranging their hair, walking in the garden, mothers with children, and pairs of lovers. 

Utamaro’s focus was always on character and expression. This type of portraits was unusual at the time, which Utamaro recognised and exploited, sometimes signing his work with ‘Utamaro the physiognomist’. Over the years, Utamaro also created shunga (erotic prints), although many these are unsigned due to their licentious nature and not being approved by governing authorities. Utamaro had a number of pupils, who took names such as Kikumaro (later Tsukimaro), Hidemaro, and Takemaro.

More Information
Print FormatOban (Vertical)
ArtistUtamaro I Kitagawa (1753 - 1806)
SubjectBeauty & Female, Male & Female
Size25.1 x 37.4 cm
Condition ReportBacking. Slight discolouration and residue paper around edges from previous mounting.