Ronin Gallery is pleased to feature Utamaro’s masterpiece, Courtesan Wakaume from the Tamaya in Edomachi 1-chome (c. 1793-1794). 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. 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. 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.
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.
Utamaro is one of the masters of 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.