UTAMARO (1754-1806), one of the best known of the Japanese designers of colour-prints, was born at Kawayoye. His father was a well-known painter of the Kanō School, Toriyama Sekiyen (Toyofusa), a pupil of Kanō Chikanobu; and Utamaro traced his descent from the old feudal clans of the Minamoto, whose war with the Taira family belongs to the romantic period of Japanese history. Utamaro's personal name was Yusuke; and he first worked under the signature Toriyama Toyo-aki; but after a quarrel with his father substituted the name Kitagawa for the former appellation. His distinct style was the outcome of that of his father, tempered with the characteristics of the Kanō school. As a painter, his landscapes and drawings of insects are most highly considered by Japanese critics; but his fame will always rest among Europeans on his designs for colour-prints, the subjects of which are almost entirely women—professional beauties and the like. These were done for the most part while he lived, in a sort of bondage, in the house of a publisher, Tsutaya Shigesaburo. His talents were wasted by an unbroken career of dissipation, culminating in a term of imprisonment for a pictorial libel on the shogun Iyenari, in 1804. From this he never recovered, and died on the third day of the fifth month, 1806. The colour-prints of Utamaro are distinguished by an extreme grace of line and of colour. His composition is superb; and even in his lifetime he achieved such popularity among his contemporaries as to gain the title Ukiyo-ye Chūkō-no-so, “great master of the Popular School.” His work has a considerable reputation with the Dutch who visited Nagasaki, and was imported into Europe before the end of the 18th century. His book illustrations are also of great beauty. Three portraits of him are known: two colour-prints by himself, and one painting by Chobunsai Yeishi (in the collection of Mr Arthur Morrison). His prints were frequently copied by his contemporaries, especially by the first Toyokuni and by Shunsen; and many of those bearing his name are really the work of Koikawa Harumachi, who had been a fellow-student, and afterwards married his widow. That artist is known by the name of Utamaro II. Most of these imitations were made between 1808 and 1820. Utamaro II., who afterwards changed his name to Kitagawa Tetsugorō, died between 1830 and 1843.
See E. de Goncourt, Outamaro (1891); E. F. Strange, Japanese Illustration (1897); and Japanese Colour-Prints (Victoria and Albert Museum Handbook, 1904).
(E. F. S.)