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Utamaro (1753 - 1806)

The Courtesan Hitomoto of Monjiro

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1798
Size (H x W): 15.25 x 10 (inches)
Publisher: Yamaguchiya
Signature: Utamaro hitsu
Condition: Good color and impression, very light small repair left edge, mat mark left and bottom edge, very light surface soiling, full sheet with margin.



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 collections such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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.