Utamaro and Japan art: Sad last few years

Utamaro and Japan art: Sad last few years

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) is famous for depicting beautiful women (bijin-ga). He also produced erotic art (shunga), birds, insects, kabuki, and other artistic themes. 

Utamaro’s exact year of birth isn’t fully known. Hence, many aspects of his life remain shrouded in mystery. However, the distinguished publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo was a firm patron of Utamaro. Therefore, by the 1780s and early 1790s, Utamaro’s art was popular.

The British Museum says, “The most celebrated artist of women of the whole ‘Ukiyo-e’ school, Utamaro’s work blossomed steadily during the 1780s as a result of his close association with the publisher Tsutaya Jusaburo. He strove hard to develop a fresh and cool new depiction of women, and after a period during the late 1780s and early 90s when he concentrated on illustrated albums and sets of prints inscribed with ‘kyoka’ poems, he managed to establish his own unique style and replace Kiyonaga as the premier designer of prints of women.”

The Suntory Museum of Art says, “The stars of Edo period culture, ukiyo-e artists Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Toshusai Sharaku, the comic author Santo Kyoden (1761-1816) and the kyoka comic poetry author Ota Nanpo(1749-1823), flourished in the city of Edo during the latter half of the 18th century. The savvy mastermind behind all these celebrities was Tsutaya Juzaburo (1750-1797), the greatest avant-garde producer, creator and publisher of Edo culture.”

The last few years of his life were a time of ill health and political tensions that sought to crush aspects of artistic freedom. Utamaro also missed his friend Juzaburo who died in 1797. Therefore, his brief imprisonment in 1804 – and being handcuffed for 50 days during his house arrest – entailed that despite being relatively young, he was entering the final years of his life.

Utamaro depicted Toyotomi Hideyoshi in a negative light. For example, Hideyoshi with prostitutes in his art. Thus, with censorship increasing, he fell foul of the Edo political system. Other artists also faced prison, their art destroyed, and other restrictions.

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