Love letter in hand, the courtesan Karakoto turns her attention from the words of admiration to something just beyond the page. Through the strands of her hair, one can make out the pale curve of her ear. Her kimono is elaborately patterned, the outer layer presenting a design of birds soaring above waves. Utamaro built a reputation for capturing such private moments in the lives of these public figures. At the turn of the 19th century, Utamaro entered what Shibui has termed “The Period of Sentiments.” During this time, he designed portraits that penetrated the most intimate aspects of the personalities and private lives of all classes and types of women. Courtesans functioned as celebrities in the floating world. They were idealized in popular imagination and printed impressions.
Other impressions of this print can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Ritsumeikan University.
Utamaro is one of the masters of Japanese woodblock printing. The scholar and artist Sekien served as Utamaro’s teacher until Seiken’s death in 1788. While the influence of Kiyonaga coursed through his early prints, Utamaro’s 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 (pictures of beautiful women). 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. Utamaro’s enormous popularity was not limited to Japan. He was one of the first ukiyo-e artists to be known in Europe and inspired many Western artists.
Utamaro is especially known for his portraits of women, renowned for his ability to subtlety capture their private lives. From courtesans to mothers, he offered a behind-the-scenes understanding of Edo’s women. Slender and graceful, Utamaro’s women bear small features and delicate color. He also produced many okubi-e (big-head portraits). During the 19th century, Utamaro entranced Western artists with his designs. Mary Cassat was particularly taken by Utamaro’s work, exclaiming, “you who want to make color prints, you couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful.” 1
1. Mathews, Nancy Mowll. Mary Cassatt: A Life. New York: Villard, 1994. Print, 194.