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.