A Closer Look: Courtesan Wakaume from the Tamaya

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) is a true master of ukiyo-e. From his images of bugs to his renowned portraits of women, his works exude a subtle and elegant beauty. Starting in 1791, Utamaro focused on portraits of the beauties of Edo. He embraced the okubi-e, or big head, print format and considered the subtleties of the bijin, or beautiful women, that he portrayed. Rendered with small features and an eye for color, these beauties set Utamaro from the other artists working in the genre of bijin-ga, or pictures of beautiful women. His fame spread beyond Japan, making Utamaro one of the first ukiyo-e artists to reach a European audience.

Utamaro, Courtesan Wakaume from the Tamaya in Edomachi 1-chome, 1793-1794. Ronin Gallery.
Utamaro, Courtesan Wakaume from the Tamaya in Edomachi 1-chome, 1793-1794. Ronin Gallery.

This Asia Week, Ronin Gallery is pleased to feature Utamaro’s masterpiece, Courtesan Wakaume from the Tamaya in Edomachi 1-chome (c. 1793-1794). Signed “Utamaro hitsu,” the work is printed with the Kiwame seal. Hair heavy with golden pins, the stunning Wakaume turns her head to glance behind her. She belongs to the highest rank of courtesan, the zashiki-mochi, or “having-her-own-suite” rank in the Yoshiwara’s Tamaya brothel.  As her layered over kimono slides off of her gracefully sloped shoulders, she catches the left edges with delicate fingers. The front of her kimono drapes lightly open, while her right hand remains hidden beneath her boldly patterned obi. Though the cartouche identifies two kamuro, or child attendants, only one can be seen peeking out from behind Wakaume’s peach-colored kimono. One cartouche identifies the members of the scene, while a second cartouche presents a kyoka, or “comical poem,” by Hachi no Nanko. The verse celebrates the famous beauty: “Blossoming from out of/ Her snow white robe/ Even her name is fragrant / The flower Wakaume (young plum)”

The work boasts very good color, impression and state, but the luxury of this printing rests in the pink mica ground. This iridescent background enhances the elegance of the high-ranking beauty and Utamaro’s exquisite composition. Offering a pearly sheen and tangible luxury to ukiyo-e prints, this mica technique gained popularity in the 1790s. The process took several different forms over the years, but the most common method required that a separate carved block with which to print the adhesive onto the image. Once this glue was placed, the printer would spread mica onto the print, let it set, then shake off the excess. Printed straight to the paper, the ground mica created a silver-white surface, yet the printer could manipulate this effect by printing a color beneath the mica. In the case of Utamaro’s Wakaume from Tamaya, the iridescent pink likely resulted from the under printing of a safflower rose. As mica is particularly vulnerable to humidity and handling, it is stunning that the mica ground remains so beautifully intact on this print. Together the condition, technique, and composition amplify the rarity of this work.

The print Courtesan Wakaume from the Tamaya is a definitive masterpiece of Utamaro. Other impressions of this work can be found at The Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In Paris this past spring, a similar pink mica portrait by Utamaro set a world record price for Japanese prints at auction. Want to further explore this work? View the print here. Curious to learn more about the great Utamaro? Visit our blog “Who is Utamaro?” here.