Utamaro’s depictions of motherhood are considered some of his most intimate portraits. His representation of the relationship between mother and child went on to inspire artists a century later, such as the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt. This print brings together both motherhood and one of Japan’s most popular folktales. Kintaro is a famous Japanese hero known for his bright red skin and feats of incredible strength. Yamauba, the Mountain Woman, raised the orphaned Kintaro after his father abandoned him in the Ashigara Mountains. Though many images of the young hero focus on his strength or his animal playmates, Utamaro focuses on the relationship between mother and child. As Yamauba pulls the string taught around the child’s hair, Kintaro makes a face at her in the hand mirror.
Other impressions of this print can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, and Tokyo National Museum.
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.