Two bullfinches perch on a leafy branch, looking towards the owl resting on the wizened tree to the right. He nestles his tufted head down into his feathers, looking out at the viewer. In both species, Utamaro pays careful attention to the color and textures of the birds through details such as the subtle red bokashi coloring on the throat of the male bullfinch. The image bears two poems, each a pun around the pictured bird. The left poem reads, “Even uso (the bullfinch)/ sleeps in the night/ But your lies/ Give me no perch to rest.” Uso means bullfinch, but alludes to the Japanese word for “lie.” The right text reads, “I laugh/ And cry/ At the same time/ Since you ignore me/ Like an earless owl in the tree” (translation by the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Though the male bullfinch holds his mouth open, chirping towards the neighboring branch, the owl is nonplussed. This print belongs to Utamaro’s universally acclaimed ehon (illustrated book), One Hundred Birds Compared to Humorous Ditties. Both playful and intimate, this realistic and sensitively rendered design is a testament to Utamaro’s genius as an artist.
Other impressions of this work can be found in the Library of Congress, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Utamaro is one of the masters of Japanese woodblock printing. The scholar and artist Sekien served as Utamaro’s teacher until Seiken’s death in 1788. While the influence of Kiyonaga courses through his early prints, Utamaro’s unique style soon asserts 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 (pictures of beautiful women). 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. Utamaro’s enormous popularity was not limited to Japan. He was one of the first ukiyo-e artists to be known in Europe and inspired many Western artists.
Utamaro is especially known for his portraits of women, renowned for his ability to subtlety capture their private lives. From courtesans to mothers, he offered a behind-the-scenes understanding of Edo’s women. Slender and graceful, Utamaro’s women bear small features and delicate color. He also produced many okubi-e (big-head portraits). During the 19th century, Utamaro entranced Western artists with his designs. Mary Cassat was particularly taken by Utamaro’s work, exclaiming, “you who want to make color prints, you couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful.” 1
1. Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Mary Cassatt: A Life. New York: Villard, 1994. Print, 194.