Kitagawa Utamaro’s a late Edo-period artist who specializes in drawing beauties. He became a disciple of the famed Toriyama Sekien at around the age of eighteen. He’s quite a rebel who stands for the freedom of expression. Back then, the Bakufu believed that Ukiyoe was something immoral and forbade the inscription of names in beauty portraits unless they were that of prostitutes. To work around that, Kitagawa Utamaro tried innovative ways like adding an additional stroke to the name or hiding the name within the art. In the 12th year of Kansei, Okubi-e of beauties, where only the heads were drawn, was strictly forbidden. Finding loopholes in the law, Kitagawa Utamaro drew half-bodies or beauties in groups of three, and he inadvertently came up with a new genre thanks to his creativity. Unfortunately, his rebel acts did not go unnoticed and he became rather infamous among those in the higher positions. At the age of 52, he got caught for not drawing beauty portraits, but rather for drawing scenes of the Ehon Taikouki, which was adapted from Kawasumi Taikouki, a chronicle portraying the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He was handcuffed for 50 days as a punishment. After which, he tried to get back onto the art scene but unfortunately, his drawing skills has declined and he also lost his interest; this led to a sad decline. Even so, he’s still remembered today for his bravery and beautiful works. Here are some of his famous pieces.
Three beauties of the present day (1793)
In this piece, Kitagawa Utamaro drew three famous beauties of his time. Geisha Tomimoto Toyohina, teahouse waitresses Naniwaya Kita and Takashima Hisa. While their facial features may resemble each other, there’s a subtle difference in their expressions. In the centre was Tomimoto Toyohina, a famous Geisha of Shinyoshiwara. Naniwaya Kita, the lady on the left, works in the teahouse located near Zuijinmon, the Sensouji. She’s well-known for having many fans. Takashima Hisa, the lady on the right, works at a teahouse in Yagenbori, Ryougoku, which her father owned.
Takashima ohisa using two mirrors to observe her coiffure (1795)
Takashima Hisa must have been quite a muse to Kitagawa Utamaro. In this piece, we see her in a rather private setting as she tried to use two mirrors to check her coiffure, which was of course perfect. It’s quite a brilliant piece which provides different perspectives literally and figuratively. The messy drawer provides another peek into the private life of Takashima Hisa where her accessories were tucked away.
Beauty checking hair with two mirrors
Kitagawa Utamaro must have taking quite a liking to the idea of the using two mirrors in his work as we see another lady, a geisha who works in the Yoshiwara quarters, here checking her hairstyle with two mirrors. Unlike the work with Takashima Hisa, the lady here’s a little more risqué as her chest was quite exposed. The outfit’s also colourful with eye-catching patterns. On the top right, a small image of the location was shown, which provides yet another new perspective; Kitagawa Utamaro’s sure the master in this aspect.
This amazing article written by Yeong!