1753—1806, active 1775—1806. Due not least to the sheer volume and versatility of his work, Utamaro is considered by many connoisseurs to be the most important master of the Japanese woodblock print, which he might well be said to have perfected. After his father s death, Utamaro moved from Musashi province to Edo, where in 1775 he joined the studio of the townscape painter Sekien, who may have been a relation. He remained there for seven years. At first he produced illustrations for plays and poems, before going on to actor portraits in the style ofShunsho. His brilliant talents were recognized by the leading publisher Tsutay a Juzaburo, who in 1780 took him into his house, located at the entrance to Yoshiwara, which became a rendezvous for artists and poets. In 1782 Utamaro accepted a permanent contract from Juzaburo, and adopted the name under which he would become famous. Of his contemporaries, he was influenced most of all by Kiyonaga, whose graceful and elegant female type he adopted and provided with a touch of eroticism and feminine psychology; other influences included Masanobu, Shunsho and Shigemasa. By the 1790s his style was fully formed, and with his bijin-ga he dominated the field of ukiyo-e. His special distinguishing features are his compositional skill and his easy command of technique, as can be seen, for example, in the combination of different printing processes, in relief printing and in the use of silver and gold powder, along with his subtle sense of colour with all its wealth of nuance. No other master of ukiyo-e devoted himself so consistently and with such success to the portrayal of beautiful women as did Utamaro. Outstanding examples of his work are his masterly portraits of the famous courtesans and demi-mondaines ofYoshiwara, who, through him, have become immortal. These pictures, which revere an ultra-slim, graceful and elegant female type, her garments wrapped carelessly about her, and yet which are also designed to convey the inner beauty of the sitter, were being exported even during his lifetime to China and, secretly, to Europe. Utamaro's predilection was for the use of bright, fresh colours, often on a mica-dust background, and strewn with gold dust or powdered mother-ofpearl. His favourite motifs were women at their everyday business, making themselves up, bathing, arranging their hair, walking in the garden, together with mothers with children, children's games, courtesans from the pleasure district, and pairs of lovers. In addition, he produced numerous albums, including magnificent biology books with plates of insects, shellfish, plants, birds and landscapes. His output also extended to mythology, genre scenes and numerous erotic prints, both single sheets and albums. His pillow-book "E-hon Utamakura", dating from 1788, is the most perfect and sophisticated work of erotic art ever produced in Japan. Shortly before his death Utamaro came into conflict with the censor as a result of a triptych published in 1804, whose historical motifs were suspected of satirizing life at the shoguns court. For Utamaro the upshot was fifty day's house arrest in handcuffs. Alongside Hokusai, Utamaro was one of the first Japanese artists to become known in Europe. Toulouse-Lautrec was one of his admirers. In 1891, Edmond de Goncourt in Paris published the first biography of him.
From Hillier J., Japanese Colour Prints, Phaidon, 3rd edn,1993