• Home
  • -
  • Courtesan Usumizu from Tsuruya


Utamaro (1753 - 1806)

Courtesan Usumizu from Tsuruya

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1789
Size (H x W): 15 x 10 (inches)
Publisher: Yamaguchiya
Seals: Kiwame
Signature: Utamaro hitsu
Condition: Good color, very good impression, light overall wear, mica on collar.



In this portrait, the courtesan Usumizu appears slightly undone. As she pulls the neck of her under kimono across her chest, fine wisps of hair can be found at the nape of her neck, her temple, and her left ear. Unlike the taut coiffures found in many okubi-e, Usumizu’s hair loosely rolls over her many hairpins in gentle waves. Utamaro pays such special care to her hair such that each strand seems tangible. She raises her eyebrows, her mouth slightly open, perhaps portrayed in a moment of surprise. The Yoshiwara captivated Utamaro throughout his career. In fact, his prints show such an intimate acquaintance with the women of the pleasure quarters that he was called a “sensualist” by late 19th century Western critics.

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.