The ukiyo-e[a] genre of art flourished in Japan from the 17th through 19th centuries. Its artists produced woodblock prints and paintings of such subjects as female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica. The term ukiyo-e (浮世絵 IPA: [u.ki.jo.e]) translates as "picture[s] of the floating world".
Ukiyo-e art flourished in Japan during the Edo period from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and the art form took as its primary subjects courtesans, kabuki actors, and others associated with the "floating world" lifestyle of the pleasure districts. Alongside paintings, mass-produced woodblock prints were a major form of the genre. Ukiyo-e art was aimed at the common townspeople at the bottom of the social scale, especially of the administrative capital of Edo. Its audience, themes, aesthetics, and mass-produced nature kept it from consideration as serious art.
In the mid-eighteenth century, full-colour nishiki-e prints became common. They were printed by using a large number of woodblocks, one for each colour. Towards the close of the eighteenth century there was a peak in both quality and quantity of the work. Kiyonaga was the pre-eminent portraitist of beauties during the 1780s, and the tall, graceful beauties in his work had a great influence on Utamaro, who was to succeed him in fame. Shunshō of the Katsukawa school introduced the ōkubi-e "large-headed picture" in the 1760s. He and other members of the Katsukawa school, such as Shunkō, popularized the form for yakusha-e actor prints, and popularized the dusting of mica in the backgrounds to produce a glittering effect.
Little is known of Utamaro's life. He was born Kitagawa Ichitarō, probably about 1753. As an adult, he was known by the given names Yūsuke and later, Yūki. His birthplace and the names of his parents are not known.
Apparently, Utamaro married, although little is known about his wife and there is no record of their having had children. There are, however, many prints of tender and intimate domestic scenes featuring the same woman and child over several years of the child's growth among his works.
Sometime during his childhood Utamaro came under the tutelage of the artist Toriyama Sekien, who described his pupil as bright and devoted to art. Sekien, although trained in the upper-class Kanō school of Japanese painting, had become in middle age a practitioner of ukiyo-e and his art was aimed at the townspeople in Edo. His students included haiku poets and ukiyo-e artists such as Eishōsai Chōki.
There are many authorities who believe that Utamaro was Sekien's son. He did live in Sekien's house while he was growing up and the relationship between the two artists continued until Sekien's death in 1788.
Under the name Kitagawa Toyoaki, Utamaro's first published work was the cover to a kabuki playbook entitled Forty-eight Famous Love Scenes which was distributed at the Edo playhouse Nakamura-za. As Toyoaki, Utamaro continued as an illustrator of popular literature for the rest of the decade, and occasionally produced single-sheet yakusha-e portraits of kabuki actors.
The young, ambitious publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō enlisted Utamaro and in the autumn of 1782 the artist hosted a lavish banquet whose list of guests included artists such as Kiyonaga, Kitao Shigemasa, and Katsukawa Shunshō, as well as writers such as Ōta Nanpo and Hōseidō Kisanji . It was at this banquet that it is believed the artist first announced his new art name, Utamaro. Per custom, he distributed a specially made print for the occasion, in which, before a screen bearing the names of his guests, is a self-portrait of Utamaro making a deep bow.
Utamaro's first work for Tsutaya appeared in a publication dated as 1783: The Fantastic Travels of a Playboy in the Land of Giants,a kibyōshi picture book created in collaboration with his friend Shimizu Enjū, a writer.In the book, Tsutaya described the pair as making their debuts.
At some point in the mid-1780s, probably 1783, he went to live with Tsutaya Jūzaburō. It is estimated that he lived there for approximately five years. He seems to have become a principal artist for the Tsutaya firm. Evidence of his prints for the next few years is sporadic, as he mostly produced illustrations for books of kyoka, literally 'crazy verse', a parody of the classical waka form. None of his work produced during the period 1790–1792 has survived.
In about 1791 Utamaro gave up designing prints for books and concentrated on making single portraits of women displayed in half-length, rather than the prints of women in groups favoured by other ukiyo-e artists.
In 1793 he achieved recognition as an artist, and his semi-exclusive arrangement with the publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō ended. Utamaro then went on to produce several series of well-known works, all featuring women of the Yoshiwara district.
Over the years, he also created a number of volumes of animal, insect, and nature studies and shunga, or erotica. Shunga prints were quite acceptable in Japanese culture, not associated with a negative concept of pornography as found in western cultures, but considered rather as a natural aspect of human behavior and circulated among all levels of Japanese society.
In 1797, Tsutaya Jūzaburō died. Apparently, Utamaro was very upset by the loss of his long-time friend and supporter. Some commentators feel that after this event, his work never reached the heights previously attained.[who?]
In 1804, at the height of his success, he ran into legal trouble by publishing prints related to a banned historical novel. The prints, entitled Hideyoshi and his Five Concubines, depicted the wife and concubines of the military ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who lived from 1536 to 1598. Consequently, Utamaro was accused of insulting the real Hideyoshi's dignity. He was sentenced to be handcuffed for fifty days (some accounts say he briefly was imprisoned). According to some sources, the experience crushed him emotionally and ended his career as an artist.
He died in 1806 on the twentieth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar (October 31 on the Gregorian calendar), and was given the Buddhist posthumous name Shōen Ryōkō Shinshi. He is believed to have been fifty-three, from which his birth year would be estimated as 1753.
Apparently with no heirs, his tomb at the temple Senkōji was left untended. A century later, in 1917, admirers of Utamaro had the decayed grave repaired.
The above is from Wikipedia. Sometimes I disagree with Wikiperdia but they are right on target here.
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