He is known for producing some of the world’s best-known ukiyo-e prints, he is considered as “a master of femininity” and an “expert on women.” He is presumed to have created thousands of designs and artworks and has served as an inspiration for even more. And yet, to the global art world, the life of Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) is still veiled in uncertainty.
Moon at Shinagawa; Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1788; painting mounted on panel; color on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer
1. There are no records on who he was
Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806) is presumed to have produced some 2,000 works in his lifetime and is credited for some of Japan’s best-known ukiyo-e of all times, but there are no existing records—no letters, no diaries, nor work-related documents—that shed light on who he was, how he lived, or even how he looked.
The little we know of him is to a large extent uncertain: Utamaro was probably born in 1753, possibly in Edo—now Tokyo—, may have been married and may have had a child; may have lived in one of Edo’s pleasure quarters, or may have had a father who did. While there are numerous speculations and theories about his life, very few are supported by historical evidence.
2. He was a freelancer-turned-pro
If Utamaro was living in modern times, we would most likely know him as a freelancer—a very well paid one, in fact. As part of their marketing efforts, commercial publications in the 18th century Edo would hire on-the-project artists to produce images of “approved subjects”—kabuki, sumo, courtesans, beauties, famous places, and anything else that wouldn’t depict political or controversial images.
It is believed that Utamaro became one of those “brush for hire” artists …continue reading