Inventing Utamaro

Moon at Shinagawa (also known as Moonlight Revelry at Dozo Sagami) by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Japan, Edo period, circa 1788, painting mounted on panel, colour on paper, Freer Gallery of Art. Gift of Charles Lang Freer

The Tokugawa peace brought prosperity and the growth of urban life to Edo Japan (1615-1868). A chonin, or ‘townspeople’, culture flourished in its cities, as merchants from the lower rungs of the Confucian social order rose to become new sources of affluence. It enabled them to seek worldly, if transient, diversions in the phenomenon known as the ukiyo, ‘floating world’, of which the Yoshiwara, ‘pleasure quarters’ of Edo, presentday Tokyo was a prominent part. The spread of literacy spurred a demand for popular literature, and a taste for woodblock prints and illustrated books offering ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world’. These images had to be officially approved, however, and the publishers who hired artists to depict them were cautiously optimistic.

One of the most highly esteemed ukiyo-e artists of his generation was the legendary Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) from Edo. Like other artists of his time, he did not work independently but was employed by publishers and patrons as a ‘brush for hire’. Utamaro was known already in his own day as a master of the bijin, ‘beauty’ genre, brilliantly capturing sensuous females both in painting and in print. He was prolific, creating at least 2,000 designs that were transformed by the emerging print medium into multiples of thousands on paper. He also produced the illustrations for up to 90 books, including novellas, poetry albums and erotica, yet less than 50 paintings extant might be attributed to him.

Among them is a unique triptych, last shown at the Paris Exposition of 1887 as an ensemble before being sold off individually and dispersed. The first work, Moon at Shinagawa, was purchased by Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), the founder of the Freer Gallery of Art in 1903. The second, Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara, passed through several hands in France until the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut bought it in 1957. The third, Snow at Fukagawa, remained in Paris before being acquired by collector Nagase Takero who on returning home displayed it at a Japanese department store in April 1948. The painting then went missing for almost 70 years until March 2014, when the Okada Museum of Art, Hakone startled the art world by announcing that it had been found. The sudden rediscovery has enabled the triptych to be united for the first time in the exhibition Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered at the Freer and Sackler Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the only venue showing all three works. It is curated by James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer and Sackler, and guest curator Julie Nelson Davis, professor of history of art at the University of Pennsylvania.

‘The thrust of this exhibition is to introduce three unique and understudied paintings brought together for the first time in nearly 140 years,’ says Dr Ulak.‘It is designed to offer the audience two distinct yet complementary ways of understanding the paintings. The first is the late 19th-century Western art market’s – particularly the Parisian market’s – fascination with imagery of the women of the Edo period ‘floating world’. We stress that it was to this market (Paris) that the three large paintings were dispatched from Japan in the late 1880s. We explore the expectations of that market and its benchmarks for determining quality’. In the mid-19th century, Japan was opening out to the West and eager to introduce ‘modern’ Japanese bijutsu, ‘fine art’ and contemporary craft through international expositions in London, Vienna, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere. Ukiyo-e was not initially a part of their offerings; it was considered unsuitable until dealers realised that carrying it would greatly enhance Japanese art. Following the reopening of trade with the West, demand for the genre accelerated. The transition to the Meiji era (1868-1912) saw a growing market for new impressions of ukiyo-e subjects as well as original Edo-period woodblock prints.

The advent of these Japanese imports in the West was accompanied by a fascination for Japonisme (the influence of Japanese art and aesthetics on Western art); particularly in Paris, where its approaches to graphic design, poster art and book illustration went on to enrich Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art during the city’s Belle Epoque (1871-1914). This trend was due in no small part to the dealers Hayashi Tadamasa (1853-1906) and Siegfried Bing (1838-1905), who had entered the fray. Hayashi, a former government functionary had helped to organise the Japanese pavilion at the 1878 Paris Expo. Bing, touted as an impresario of the ‘arts of the Orient’, conscientiously promoted Japanese art and the newly emerging art nouveau.

The duo secured an exclusive clientele in the French capital and beyond. They convened monthly meetings of Les Amis de l’Art Japonais, ‘Friends of Japanese Art’, whose eminent members included the artist Claude Monet, the jeweller Henri Vever and the writer and critic Edmond de Goncourt. Indeed Goncourt (1822-1896) managed in an age of limited information, to create an ‘Outamaro’ for the Western imagination. In 1891, he published the first monograph written on a Japanese artist, Outamaro: le Peintre des Maisons Vertes, ‘Utamaro: Painter of the Green Houses’ (‘green houses’ mistranslated from the Japanese seiro ‘azure towers’ for the Yoshiwara), portraying him as a denizen and expert of the demimonde. Parisians were attracted to a world that echoed diversions they had lost and by the turn of the century, Utamaro was known to connoisseurs in the West. His exotic beauties transformed the ideal of Japanese womanhood. They had a life of their own, and as opposed to their delicate counterparts of the past, possessed a confident new glamour that appealed directly to western instincts.

Hayashi meanwhile established himself as the Parisian resource for ukiyo-e. He was probably responsible for the triptych, but retained Moon at Shinagawa until 1903 when he returned to Japan. ‘We know from Freer’s correspondence that he saw Moon at Shinagawa in person on a visit to Paris in 1900,’ says guest curator Prof Davis. ‘He clearly remembered the painting and wrote to Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) about his enthusiasm for it. A few days later he telegraphed Bing to enter a bid for the work being auctioned at the Hôtel Druout.’

Reuniting the triptych in 2017 offers an opportunity to contemplate Utamaro in the context of his time. ‘Through the display of the varied range of his output, we also secondly, explain how he was, for a time and aided by his publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo, the master of a niche market – the categorisation and glamourisation of Edo’s brothel world for its customers,’ says Dr Ulak.
‘A large part of Utamaro’s success stemmed from creating an artistic persona as an intimate of the world he depicted.’ Still the artist remains somewhat of a mystery. Very little is known of his personal life. No letters, diaries, or notebooks have survived to shed light on the place, or date, of his birth. Utamaro’s reputation as one of the greatest print designers and painting artists of the ukiyo-e genre, however, is not in doubt. Early on he served an apprenticeship under Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788), a conservative artist of the Kano school, one of the leading painting lineages of Japan. Through his master Utamaro became proficient in a range of subjects spanning traditional ink painting to ghostly apparitions from the supernatural.

Sekien who moved easily within his circle of artists, poets and writers, had important contacts from the publishing world. Among them was Tsutaya Juzaburo (1750-1797), an influential publisher who ran a lucrative business producing guides to the pleasure quarters. In the late 1780s, he plucked Utamaro from under Sekien’s wing to illustrate poetry albums, erotica and sheet prints of bijin. Women across Edo period society, from high-ranking courtesans, daimyo wives and merchant daughters to waitresses, soon filled the pages of illustrated books. As Tsutaya emerged as  Utamaro’s primary publisher, he commissioned subjects that increasingly marketed the Yoshiwara, Edo’s licensed brothel district.

Becoming a much-admired persona and a connoisseur of female beauty, Utamaro was hailed by the late 18th century as its leading exponent. His fortunes rested too on a web of social connections. Through the good offices of Tsutaya, he illustrated the poet Zenno Kihei’s verse, and made the acquaintance of the latter’s brother, Zenno Ihei, a wealthy merchant from Tochigi, northeast of Edo. It seems highly likely that Ihei was the patron who commissioned the triptych on show. A significant and telling detail is the prominent Zenno family crest, visible on a figure’s sleeve in each work. Moreover, a brochure described three large paintings shown at Tochigi’s Joganji temple on 23 November 1879, as belonging to the Zenno family collection.

Much speculation continues to surround the works. They had been meticulously crafted to idealise famous pleasure quarters in Edo, drawing inspiration from a couplet by the Tang poet Bai Juyi (772-846): ‘Snow, moon and flowers – in these moments I think longingly of you’. Each painting celebrates female beauty in the context of these poetic sentiments and their associations, suggesting they were perhaps intended as a set. However, they are exceptionally large, have different sizes and were painted – in different styles – over a period of twelve to 18 years, all of which challenge the conventional idea of a triptych. All three are unsigned, raising questions about their attribution: were they from the hand of Utamaro, or were they made collectively?

Moon at Shinagawa, depicted on a large sheet of paper, was originally mounted as a hanging scroll. It is dated to around 1788-1790 when Utamaro first met publisher Tsutaya and the Zenno brothers. Shinagawa, the first post-station of fifty-three on the Tokaido highway linking Edo and Kyoto, was a place where special arrangements might be made for travellers seeking intimate encounters. The composition suggests it is early evening; the geisha are at leisure, relaxing in a large domestic space. Behind a dominant central subject, some seated musicians are playing the shamisen, Japanese ‘lute’ and the koto, ‘zither’, as tea is being served. At the far end, the view opens out to the sea where one lady leaning over the balcony, watches sailing vessels on the horizon.

‘The overall composition, with the extended use of perspective, is similar to several prints Utamaro produced in these years,’ says Prof Davis. ‘The figures also resemble those he made around this time, when he was imitating the style of Torii Kiyonaga.’ Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) was a contemporary of Utamaro’s. He was also a master of bijin subjects, known to have produced large numbers of statuesque beauties in diptych or triptych form. It was quite common for ukiyo-e artists to adapt compositions and themes, and rework them in their oeuvre, and Utamaro was no exception as a number of supporting prints and illustrated books attest.

Now remounted on a panel, Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara dated to 1792-1794, was first painted on eight smaller sheets. ‘In the early 1790s, Utamaro in a collaboration with Tsutaya, was designing many of the prints that are now considered among his masterpieces,’ says Prof Davis. ‘What we see in this painting is a more mature style in line with this period in his print production.’

Yoshiwara, located in northeast Edo, was the most famous of Japan’s pleasure quarters. It was exclusive, an enclosure surrounded by a moat. A single main gate led to a self-contained community of brothels boasting its own fire-fighting force. Yoshiwara was a ‘fantasy’ space where a wealthy man could meet highly accomplished, beautiful women skilled not only in the art of conversation, but also in poetry, music and dance. Many were courtesans, who epitomised the height of glamour, and lived to become celebrities in their lifetimes.

Among the Yoshiwara’s most celebrated events was the cherry blossom festival in the spring, depicted in the painting as an occasion with a festive air. Beyond the floral sprays, we have a bird’s eye view of activities taking place in a two-storied building. On the first storey, a music and dance performance is being enacted behind closed doors. There is a flurry of activity on the ground floor. Under the light of red lanterns, elegantly coiffed ladies festooned in their best brocades and silks – perhaps the Yoshiwara’s top-ranking beauties – are being ushered into the entrance.

Snow at Fukagawa, executed between 1802 and 1806, is stylistically consistent with the artist’s later works. It remained a hanging scroll that was conserved and remounted upon its rediscovery. Fukagawa on the Sumida river stood on reclaimed land and became part of 19th-century Edo as a pleasure precinct. There is an element of anticipation in the painting as the geisha make their way – surrounded by snow-covered pines – into the reception area.

‘The Fukagawa district was famous for its geisha, and many were simply entertainers, expert in the arts of dance, music and song,’ says Prof Davis. ‘Others were known to grant sexual favours to clients. The geisha in this painting would be meeting with clients to provide entertainment. In the right rear, a woman is carrying some bedding to one of the rooms, suggesting more intimate relations.’

After the painting was completed, Utamaro was punished in 1804 for violating censorship rules. He died two years later in 1806. Although he continued to be widely imitated in Japan for generations after his death, we know nothing more about him. ‘This exhibition we hope will offer viewers several tools, including other works that give stylistic comparisons with which to consider the three unusual paintings,’ says Dr Ulak. ‘We view this ‘reassembling’ as the beginning rather than the conclusion of any in-depth research efforts.’




From 8 April to 9 July, Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered is at the Freer/Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1050 Independence Avenue, Washington DC,