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Utamaro And His Five Woodblock Monuments of Beauty

One of the dominating themes in the history of art anywhere in the world has always been female beauty. Parodoxically, few artists are primarily identified with this theme. A major exeption is the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) who dedicated is whole artistic life exploring this beauty. He specialized in the posture, the character, the softness of the skin and the grace of the woman and fully utilized the characteristic of the woodblock to obtain the essence of female nature.

The following five bijin (beauty print) designs are among his most acclaimed masterpieces.

Mountain Woman Yamamba (c.1801)

Utamaro designed nearly fifty prints of the mountain woman Yamamba and her son Kintaro (a.k.a. Kintoki) in various settings and formats. This naga-oban (c. 20 3/4″ x 9 1/2″) design is Utamaro’s most well-known print depicting this subject. In this scene the viewer can feel true motherly love from Yamamba as she’s trying to calm the little boy with chestnuts while fondling him as he is holding on to her. The soft colour combination is beautifully contrasted with the strong colours used for Kintaro, emphasizing his health and strength.

Matron (c.1793)

From Utamaro’s five part series Kasen: ko no bu (Selected Love Poems) this okubi-e (bust portrait) design is generally considered the best of the set. The title in the English translation of this print is ‘Love Which One Can Not Put Out in One’s Mind’ and is the depiction of a matron resting her head on her hand. Her eyebrows are shaven, which indicates she’s married, and her eyes are narrowed in a dreamily gaze looking into the distance. In this series Utamaro focuses on the facial expressions of these women using fine lines and soft delicate colors trying to expose their inner feelings.

Red Lipstick (c.1794)

An ordinary woman depicted in a half-kneeling position looking in a mirror which she holds in her hand. She’s applying red lipstick to her mouth after she blackened her teeth. In this design Utamaro proofs his mastery in depicting women wearing everyday clothes placed in an ordinary setting. The subtle contrast between the red lipstick and the white of the skin is a wonderful detail. The black box in front of her contains implements for blackening the teeth.

The Letter (c.1791)

The following print is from Utamaro’s famous ‘Ten Physiognomical Studies of women’ -series and is a study of a noble looking middle-aged woman reading a letter, with her hands outstretched to unfold it. A masterpiece because of its simplicity and superb composition. Some impressions of this design have a pink-mica background instead of silver-mica. The pink was made after the silver.

Utamaro’s Muse Ohisa (c.1792)

This print belongs to the same series as the foregiving one and is probably the most celebrated single bijin portrait in the history of Ukiyo-e. The model of this print is thought to be a daughter of Takashima Chobei who was a proprietor of a tea-house in Ryogoku Yagenbori. It seems that Utamaro often painted Takashima Ohisa (like many other contemporaries) by preference. He also painted Ohisa in the series ‘Six Famous Beautiful Women’, even after her marriage and as the proverb says: “Beauty is often inconsistent with luck”, this pretty Ohisa died young leaving two sons behind.

About Author
Here you can find more info on the artist Kitagawa Utamaro and articles on Japanese woodblock prints and shunga (erotic prints).

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