One of the most famous Japanese print painters was Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). His real name was Kitagawa Ichitaro, but in his time it was common to change his name as he got older.
Ever since he started his career, he had the patronage of the very powerful publisher Tsutaya, who allowed him to express himself freely. Despite having illustrated some books such as "Insects" (from 1788) and making studies of nature and "Shunga" (erotic scenes), he is associated in the Western world with the portraits of the beautiful women of the "Ukiyo -e” (“Painting of the floating world”), whether they are courtesans or bourgeois. A regular visitor to the "Green Houses" of Yoshiwara (the pleasure district of Edo, today's Tokyo) he was both the painter of the courtesan in her splendor, the ideal of feminine beauty, aware of her erotic ascendancy over men, as well as of the less triumphant girls, intoxicated with saké, with their kimono betraying breasts that were not so exuberant. He also showed the innocence of young women, how they were moved when reading a love letter, he witnessed the hustle and bustle of the bourgeois and evoked maternal love in the famous series "Yawauba", a woman with long loose hair, whom we see play with your child.
In order to paint such contradictory emotions and feelings he had to be interested in the “eternal feminine”. There are authors who say that his passionate lovefor the feminine was the engine of his work and his life. And, curiously, Utamaro was able to express all this with few means: his characteristic drawing line is light and accurate, maintains a constant thickness, the lines of the faces are masterly pure, and only with the eyes and hands and a few folds of the costume reveals the condition and the psychological context of the character. The silhouettes are fine and slender, the kimonos have refined colors, a sobriety well expressed by the drawing that sometimes reveals the transparency of a light summer dress. In his drawings the line gracefully runs along the contours, exquisitely reflecting the movement. His female beauties, almost always half-bust, are, in particular, the ones that have given him fame. More than realistic portraits, they are idealized representations, executed with flat colors and with a very expressive drawing.
he was such a popular and well-known artist in his genre that other contemporary artists, including the likes of Hokusai, avoided dealing with the themes that Utamaro was working on in order to avoid comparisons. His success and popularity led to his later prints from the 1800s losing quality for the sake of increased production.
In 1804, being very famous, he had a mishap due to the publication of some drawings of the environment of a military dictator (Hideyoshi), which cost him jail for almost two months. This fact totally changed his life, and in fact ended his career as an artist.
he Exerted a great influence on engraverslater and in the Impressionists. In the latter particularly, due to their use of partial views, their characteristic frames, cutting parts of the figure, representing them either from behind, well displaced, due to their emphasis on light and shadow, etc.