This section introduces a range of Japanese woodblock print artists whose work comes through our gallery.
Utamaro II Kitagawa
0 - 1830
Utamaro I Kitagawa
1753 - 1806
Utamaro Kitagawa was a printmaker and painter. He was and remains one of the artist best known to the West, along with Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Utamaro’s early life is shrouded in mystery. He was born with the name of Ichitaro Kitagawa and his place of birth is speculated to have been somewhere between Edo, Kyoto, Kawagoe and Osaka. Some people also believe that he was the son of a teahouse courtesan from the pleasure quarter in Edo.
Similar to his personal life, his artistic beginnings are not entirely clear. Early works of his show clear influence of the artist Sekien Toriyama who was educated in the Kano school of painting. Master and student had an almost family-like relationship, in which Sekien encouraged and protected young Utamaro. Some historians even say they were father and son. However, the first actor prints Utamaro produced were primarily based on the style of the Katsukawa school. He later favoured Kitao Masanobu’s and Kiyonaga’s aesthetic who were both famous for their elegantly elongated images of women.
In 1788 Utamaro finally achieved national recognition for his work. It was a number of albums of the highest compositional and technical quality that aided him in this achievement. These albums were published by Juzaburo Tsutaya who happened to be the most famous publisher of his day, with whom Utamaro created a large amount of outstanding work. Artist and publisher eventually joined forces to produce innovative work, which included figures with larger heads, three-quarter length portraits with mica powder background and a vast array of pictures of famous courtesans from Yoshiwara, the pleasure district.
His most admired works are the aforementioned bust portraits with mica background. Some of them depict celebrated beauties of the day, while others show anonymous characters. The foremost focus of the latter is supposed to be the character of the young woman who is pictured. This type of portrait was unusual at the time, which Utamaro recognised and exploited, sometimes signing his work with ‘Utamaro the physiognomist’. (Physiognomy is a practice of assessing a person’s character or personality from their outer appearance—especially the face. Source: Wikipedia.)
Women were a constant source of inspiration for Utamaro and his work stresses the physical nature of the human body, while simultaneously exploring their demeanour in an attempt to express feelings and innermost drives. As such, he was not just an artist depicting beautiful women, but also the human condition. His beauty prints sought to show different types of women and the nuances of their moods in a way not previously attempted in Ukiyo-e.
The death of his friend, house mate, supporter and chief publisher Tsutaya in 1797 was a blow to Utamaro who redoubled his efforts as a printmaker in subsequent years. These efforts payed off: Publishers’ offers flooded in and he began to produce far more work than ever before. He was also no longer subjected to Tsutaya’s tight quality control.
After Utamaro’s death no single artist had the necessary talent and originality to dominate the field of beauty prints (bijinga) as he had done. Even though each of his pupils in turn occasionally produced pleasing prints, none of them had the same magic touch as their teacher. Utamaro’s sensuous beauties are generally considered to be the finest and most evocative beauty prints in all of ukiyo-e and his reputation has remained undiminished up to the present day. His work is known internationally and he is generally regarded as one of the handful of the greatest ukiyo-e artists of all time.