Wrapped in layers of peach and green, the courtesan Hitomoto leans back, exposing the pale nape of her neck. She grasps the pillow, her hair heavily laden with hairpins. Utamaro is one of the masters of ukiyo-e. Around 1791, he directed his focus to half portraits of individual beauties, breaking away from the group designs that dominated the bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) genre of the time. Through the intimate detail of the okubi-e (big head) format, Utamaro combines psychological portraiture with a subtle sense of eroticism–here found in the exposed nape of Hitomoto’s neck. Utamaro portrayed his age and its courtesans with such striking innovation that his women have become emblems of the floating world.
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 woodblock printing. The scholar and artist Sekien served as Utamaro’s teacher until Seiken’s death in 1788. While the influence of Kiyonaga courses through his early prints, Utamaro’s unique style soon asserts 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.