Utamaro (1753 - 1806)

Beauty Holding a Fan

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1797
Size (H x W): 15.5 x 10.25 (inches)
Publisher: Yamaguchiya
Provenance: LeVeel
Signature: Utamaro hitsu
Condition: Good color, very good impression, overall wear and soiling, repairs around edges.
Price on request


Often Utamaro’s women are nameless in print, but they were readily recognizable beauties of their time. Often, these kanban musume or “poster beauties” create an atmosphere or capture a private moment. What is compelling about this particular work is the fluidity of the lines and simplicity of her form. As Utamaro’s okubi-e (big head) portraits revolutionized the bijin-ga genre, the line with which he formed these elegant beauties inspired artists and collectors internationally. Utamaro demonstrates his mastery of line in this image of a young woman. The portrait is simple in color pallet, but rich in visual texture. Utamaro delineates her delicately undone peach kimono through no more than a few elegant strokes. As the line oscillates in width, Utamaro conveys the thickness of the fabric and the subtle curvature of the kimono’s edge. The fine lines of her hair and nestled ornaments contrast the kimono.

Another impression of this print is illustrated in Kiyoshi Shibui's Ukiyoe Zuten Utamaro.

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 Japanese 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.