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Utamaro (1753 - 1806)

Courtesan Hisui from Ogiya

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1798
Size (H x W): 14.5 x 10 (inches)
Publisher: Tsutaya Juzaburo
Signature: Utamaro hitsu
Condition: Very good color and impression and state, light wear.



Utamaro’s Courtesan Hisui from Ogiya (c. 1798) presents a pair of elegant courtesans. Hair heavy with pins, Hisui and her companion unfurl the rolled paper to admire a floral pattern, perhaps a gift from an admirer. In Hiragana beside the courtesan’s name, Utamaro identifies Hisui’s kamuro (child attendants) as Iroha and Someha, though they are not pictured. This impression was featured in the article “Japanese Reverie” published in Art & Antiques (The Americas Edition) in September 2015. Another impression of this design can be found in the permanent collection of the Ota Memorial Museum in Tokyo.

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.