Utamaro  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Kitagawa Utamaro (ca. 1753 - October 31, 1806) (his name was archaically romanized as Outamaro) was a Japanese printmaker and painter, and is considered one of the greatest artists of woodblock prints (ukiyo-e). He is known especially for his masterfully composed studies of women, known as bijinga. He also produced nature studies, particularly illustrated books of insects.

His work reached Europe in the mid 19th century, where it was very popular, enjoying particular acclaim in France. He influenced the European Impressionists, particularly with his use of partial views, with an emphasis on light and shade.

The French art critic Edmond de Goncourt published Outamaro: le peintre des maisons vertes, the first monograph on Utamaro, in 1891.

Biography

Biographical details for Utamaro are extremely limited and, often, references give substantially different accounts of his life and career.

Various accounts claim that he was born either at Edo (present-day Tokyo), Kyoto, or Osaka (the three main cities of Japan), or at a provincial town (no one is sure exactly which one). The exact date also is uncertain, but is estimated as 1753. Another long-standing tradition asserts that he was born in Yoshiwara, the courtesan district of Edo, being the son of a tea-house owner, but there is no evidence of this.

His original name was Kitagawa Ichitarō. Following the Japanese custom of the time, Utamaro changed his name as he became mature, and also took the name, Ichitarō Yusuke, as he became older.

Apparently, Utamaro married, although little is known about his wife and there is no record of their having had children. There are, however, many prints of tender and intimate domestic scenes of the same woman and child over several years of the child's growth among his works.

Generally, it is agreed that while he was still a child, he became a pupil of the painter Toriyama Sekien. There are many authorities who believe that Utamaro was his son as well. He did live in Sekien's house while he was growing up and the relationship between the two artists continued until Sekien's death in 1788. Sekien originally was trained in the aristocratic Kanō School of painting, but in middle age he started to lean toward the popular Ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese woodblock prints. Sekien is known to have had a number of other pupils, who failed to achieve distinction.

At the approximate age of twenty-two, his earliest known major professional artistic work was created, a cover for a Kabuki playbook in 1775 that was published under a pseudonym, the of Toyoaki. He then produced a number of actor and warrior prints, along with theatre programmes, and other such materials. From the spring of 1781, he switched his to Utamaro, and began painting and designing woodblock prints of women, but these early works are not considered of important value.

At some point in the mid-1780s, probably 1783, he went to live with the young and rising publisher, Tsutaya Jūzaburō. It is estimated that he lived there for approximately five years. He seems to have become a principal artist for the Tsutaya firm. Evidence of his prints for the next few years is sporadic, as he mostly produced illustrations for books of kyoka, literally 'crazy verse', a parody of the classical waka form. None of his work produced during the period 1790-1792 has survived.

In about 1791 Utamaro gave up designing prints for books and concentrated on making single portraits of women displayed in half-length, rather than the prints of women in groups favoured by other ukiyo-e artists. In 1793 he achieved recognition as an artist, and his semi-exclusive arrangement with the publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō was terminated. He then went on to produce several very famous series of works, all featuring women of the Yoshiwara district.

Over the years, he also occupied himself with a number of volumes of animal, insect, and nature studies and shunga, or erotica. Shunga prints were quite acceptable in Japanese culture, not associated with a negative concept of pornography as found in western cultures, but considered rather as a natural aspect of human behavior, and circulated among all levels of Japanese society.

In 1797, Tsutaya Jūzaburō died and apparently, Utamaro was very upset by the loss of his long-time friend and supporter. Some commentators feel that after this event, his work never reached the heights it had previously.

In 1804, at the height of his success, he ran into legal trouble by publishing prints related to a banned historical novel. The prints, entitled Hideyoshi and his Five Concubines, depicted the wife and concubines of the military ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who lived from 1536 to 1598. Consequently, Utamaro was accused of insulting the real Hideyoshi's dignity. He was sentenced to be handcuffed for fifty days (some accounts say he briefly was imprisoned). According to some sources, the experience crushed him emotionally and ended his career as an artist.

He died two years later, on the twentieth day of the ninth month of 1806 (the lunar calendar date format for October 31), aged about fifty-three, in Edo.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Utamaro" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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