Utamaro Kitagawa is highly appreciated as the dominating ukiyo-e artist of the late eighteenth century. Yet little is known about his life. Neither the precise date of information about his parents are known.
First Publication: May 2001
Latest Update: July 2013
The original name of Utamaro is Ichitaro Kitagawa. It is generally agreed that he started his career as a pupil of the painter Toriyama Sekien. His early known works are actor portraits and theater programs, published under the name of Utagawa Toyoaki.
In 1781/82 he changed his name to Kitagawa Utamaro. Around 1783 Utamaro started a successful cooperation with the publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo. Together they published several book illustrations. The early works of Utamaro were influenced by Torii Kiyonaga and Harunobu Suzuki.
Since 1791 Utamaro concentrated his work on single portraits of women. He took his models from the street or from the pleasure-district Yoshiwara. The stories of his love affairs with the ladies of the "licensed quarters" are said to be abundant.
Two years later, in 1793, Utamaro received wide-spread fame and recognition as a result of a new series of women prints.
When reading about this artist, you will often find phrases like "No other ukiyo-e artist has painted the beauty of women as deeply as he did". This has indeed a point. Utamaro's women express a certain sensitivity that no ukiyo-e artist had achieved before him. He had experimented with some new techniques to display the flesh tones of his women portraits in a different and softer manner.
But the artist certainly did not show women in their real natural physiognomy. His women are idealized with extremely tall and slender bodies. The heads are twice longer than broad. The noses are extremely long and the eyes and the mouth are depicted as tiny little slits. His women have long necks and small shoulders.
The typical physiognomy of a Japanese woman of the late eighteenth century was certainly far different from the designs of Utamaro. Indeed, his women look more like the models in today's fashion magazines. Is this the key for an explanation of the success of Utamaro prints?
In 1804 Utamaro got into serious trouble with the authorities for violation of censorship laws. He had published a print with a historic scene showing the ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi with his wife and five concubines. This was considered as an offense against the ruling Shogunate of the Tokugawa family.
The artist was briefly imprisoned and to some sources sentenced to wearing hand-cuffs for 50 days. According to other sources, it was an iron collar he was forced to wear. Whatever the detailed circumstances may have been, this humiliation had a devastating impact on him. He fell into deep depressions and died two years later at the age of 53 in Edo. But in spite of his disease, Utamaro continued to produce prints until his death.
After his death, his pupil, Koikawa Shuncho, married Utamaro's widow, took his master's name and continued to produce beautiful women prints in the style of his master until 1820. And as he used the same signature as his master, he caused a bit of a mess for today's art experts and collectors.
But that's the art business: apart from all esthetic values, painting and printmaking have always had a strong commercial aspect.
The total number of Utamaro prints is estimated at over 2,000 different print designs, plus a number of paintings, surimono prints and a bunch of illustrated books - among them more than 30 shunga books (images with erotic scenes).
Japanese woodblock prints of the classical Edo period were imported to Europe in large numbers in the late nineteenth century. Commercial imports at that time were dominated by Dutch merchants. Before the opening of Japan to the West, Dutch sailors had dominated the smuggling business with Japan.
The prints that came to Europe, were in large numbers ukiyo-e of Utamaro Kitagawa images - few originals, many reproductions, many Utamaro II and many fake copies. The main importing country was France - the French loved his elegant women portraits.
As a consequence of these late 19th century imports, France is today a major source for Utamaro prints - originals, reproductions and fakes.
One of the things a novice collector of Japanese prints may find difficult is to recognize what is an original Utamaro and what is a reproduction. Most of the prints by Utamaro you find in the internet are reproductions.
One speaks of a reproduction when the print was created from woodblocks that were recarved after an original. The reproduction may even be old. Reproductions have ever been made since the 19th century. The Japanese are skillful artisans and such a reproduction looks usually quite nice, with fresh colors, and makes a decorative eyecatcher on the wall of your home or office.
But a reproduction is a reproduction and should be clearly marked as such. And it should be sold for the price of a reproduction. Circa $100 are OK for a reproduction.
In my experience 99% of all ukiyo-e dealers are honest, trustworthy and knowledgeable persons. But some are "more honest" than the rest. They either try to sell a reproduction as original, or they use flowery, ambiguous words and descriptions that make a beginner believe that he buys a valuable original.
Many, many years ago, when I was an enthusiastic friend of Japanese prints but still without much experience, I came across a dealer who had the cheek to sell Utamaro reproductions from the Meiji period as originals - for tremendous prices. At that time I was too inexperienced to recognize the fraud. Only a few years later, after I had held several Utamaro originals in my hands, I realized the scam. The crook dealer is by the way still active.
To sharpen your eye, we are showing below several reproductions. Compare them well with the Utamaro print images above (originals). You will recognize a striking difference: the colors. Originals were printed with natural, vegetable colors. These colors faded out after 2 centuries, especially if exposed to light.
Another factor to discern an original from a reproduction is the quality of the paper. Originals come often on a rather thin, soft paper that makes sometimes even a brittle impression. If the paper is thick and stiff and looks fresh, it is an indicator that you might not have an original in your hands.
It all sounds difficult for a beginner. But after dealing with Japanese prints for a while, you recognize 99% of all Utamaro reproductions even from a digital image attached to an e-mail.
Beautiful Utamaro slide show from the book Utamaro Revealed: A Guide to Subjects, Themes & Motifs.. By Gina Collia-Suzuki. Thanks to Gina for sharing this with us.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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