Dressed in kamoshimo (formal samurai clothing) paired with an enormous head, Fukusuke statues are said to be bringers of good luck. In this design, Utamaro depicts this lucky figure as a guest of two beauties. As he examines his unusually large head in the hand mirror, one woman combs his hair, while the other prepares his clothing.
During the Edo period, figurines of Fukusuke would be enshrined in tea houses and brothels to attract good luck and wealth. It is said that the figure was based on a real individual named Sataro, who lived during the early 18th to early 19th century. Born with a form of dwarfism, he worked at fair show booths. He was very popular in Edo, where people began to call him Fukusuke (luck bringer) instead of the Fugusuke (an ugly one, a derogatory term used to described disabled people at the time). When he produced pottery dolls in his likeness, the dolls enjoyed the same popularity did.
About the artist
Best known for his slender and graceful bijin-ga, or "pictures of beautiful women," Utamaro is one of the masters of Japanese woodblock printing. He is renowned for his ability to subtly capture the personality and private lives of Edo's women, from courtesans to mothers. Utamaro’s enormous popularity was not limited to Japan. During the 19th century, Utamaro's ukiyo-e designs entranced Western artists and collectors. Mary Cassat was particularly taken by Utamaro’s woodblock prints, exclaiming, “you who want to make color prints, you couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful.”1
The scholar and artist Sekien served as Utamaro’s teacher until Seiken’s death in 1788. While the influence of Kiyonaga coursed through Utamaro's early woodblock prints, his unique style soon asserted itself. A prolific artist, he also produced illustrated books and paintings. Around 1791, he directed his focus to half portraits of women on their own, rather than the full-length, group designs that dominated the genre of bijin-ga. In 1804, he ran into legal trouble with the Tokugawa Shogunate for producing prints relating to a historical scene. The print depicted the 16th century ruler Hideyoshi with his wife and courtesans, entitled Hideyoshi and His Five Concubines. The work was deemed disrespectful and Utamaro was sentenced and imprisoned for a short time. Some believe that this broke his spirit, for he died in Edo two years later.
1. Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Mary Cassatt: A Life. New York: Villard, 1994. Print, 194.