Kitagawa Utamaro is considered by many to be the most important master of the Japanese woodblock print. He dominated his field and was an influence on numerous artists.
Utamaro was born in 1753 in the province of Musashi. In 1775, after the death of his father, he moved to Edo, joined the studio of Sekien, a townscape painter, and remained at this studio for seven years. His early work focused mainly on illustrations of plays and poems, followed by actor portraits. These prints attracted the attention of Tsutaya Juzaburo, a leading publisher who recognized Utamaro's talent and became a type of patron to the artist. In 1782, Utamaro accepted a permanent contract from Juzaburo.
By the 1790s, Utamaro dominated the field of ukiyo-e or woodblock prints. As his career progressed under the influence of Kiyonaga, he became interested in portraying female figures. He displayed the female body with grace, elegance and a hint of eroticism. His work could be distinguished by its skilful composition. Utamaro often combined different printing processes in the same piece. For example, he would mix gold and silver powder for a more subtle shade. Although he played with different color techniques, he was masterful in his use of pure and bright colors.
Utamaro’s favorite motifs were the everyday tasks of women; he showed them fixing their hair, putting on make-up or walking in the garden. In creating numerous portraits of the famous courtesans of Yishiwara, he ensured these women's immortality. The images were popular and widely circulated; they were exported to China and secretly sent to Europe during the artist's lifetime. Along with his portraits of women, Utamaro also produced a number of informative albums which included plates of insects, birds, plants and landscapes.
Utamaro's work occasionally led to controversy. His 1788 pillow-book, E-Hon Utamakara, is considered one of the most sophisticated pieces of erotic art ever produced in Japan. After a conflict with a sensor over a potentially politically subversive triptych that the artist published in 1804, Utamaro spent fifty days under house arrest. He died two years later in 1806.
Utamaro, along with Hokusai, was one of the first great Japanese artists to become known in Europe. Toulouse-Lautrec was a known admirer of Utamaro's. His prolific career and obvious talent solidified his place as one of the most important Japanese print artists as well as an influence on the Western art world.