Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?-1806)
Kitagawa Utamaro was a painter and print maker, of whose life little is known. We do not know were he was born (suggested places include Edo, Kyoto and Osaka – the three biggest Japanese cities - as well a small unspecified provincial town) or when, but probably around 1753. His original name was Kitagawa Ichitaro. He is considered one of the greatest Ukiyo-e artists, being specially known by his portraits of beautiful women, or bijin-ga.
It is generally considered that Utamaro was, since his childhood and until 1788, a disciple of the painter Toriyama Sekien, although others consider Sekien to be Utamaro's father. It seems that Sekien, originally trained by the painting school of Kano, seems to have tended in later years towards the popular Ukiyo-e school.
When he reached adulthood Utamaro changed his name, as was customary in Japan, taking the name of Ichitaro Yusuke. His first major artistic work was the cover for a book on Kabuki plays, in 1775, that he published under the name of Toyoaki. To this several kabuki related works followed, actor prints, warrior prints, theatre programs, etc.
He adopted the name of Utamaro in 1781, starting then to produce women portraits. He joined the the publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo, probably in 1783, and became the main artist in his atelier. It appears that during this time he only designed prints sporadically, and dedicated is energy to book illustration, mainly of kyoka (or ‘crazy poetry’, a parody of classical poetry).
From 1791 Utamaro seems to have abandoned book illustration, concentrating in the production of prints with portraits of isolated women, a pattern that distinguishes him from the mainstream production of group portraits. It was since then, and specially since 1793, that he reached artistic success, and at the same time left the atelier of the publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo, of whom he remained a friend. It was the time he published is greatest series, mainly of beauty prints, although he also produced nature studies and shunga (erotic prints).
In 1797 Tsutaya Juzaburo died. Utamaro was very affected and his creativity suffered. In 1804 he faced serious problems with the authorities, who considered that some of his prints offended the Shogunate. He was imprisoned and sentenced to 50 days in handcuffs. These problems broke his will, and he died two years later, in 1806.