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Utamaro (1753 - 1806)

Courtesan Wakaume from the Tamaya in Edomachi 1-chome

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1793-1794
Size (H x W): 14.25 x 9.75 (inches)
Publisher: Tsutaya Juzaburo
Seals: Kiwame
Signature: Utamaro hitsu
Condition: Very good color, impression and state, pink mica ground



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. 

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.