Rediscovering Utamaro

Bijin okubi-e “large-headed pictures of beautiful women”.  Born for the art and died for it – born as Kitagawa Ichitaro in 1752, Utamaro was one of the Japanese Ukiyo-e artists who is known for bringing about a category of woodblock art known as Bijin okubi-e “large-headed pictures of beautiful women”. As you probably figured by now, the artist and painter were best known for his paintings that involved drawing beautiful, seductive, and sensual images of women. These masterful prints involved enlarged females’ heads, which in Utamaro’s words, was to bring out the true essence of a woman. Overall, his works were based on nature, insects, women, and shunga or erotica so to speak. 


An avid fan of cherry blossoms, Utamaro spared no instance of drawing them as best he could. In particular, the Japanese woodblock piece, Hideyoshi and his Five Wives Viewing the Cherry-blossoms at Higashiyama was in fact an accurate representation of his love for cherry blossoms and how he longed to normalize sensual paintings and art.

This woodblock print shows Hideyoshi, an individual surrounded by five women draped in Japanese kimonos and their faces laced with makeup. From their expressions and body language, it seems as though they’re attempting to seduce the man or serve him for what it’s worth. The blend of pastel colors, hand fans and umbrellas, and detailed backgrounds in all three snippets leave plenty of room for women to pop out in the art. That was the magic of Utamaro’s work – to make the foreground pop even when the background is as intricate as this one is. And this is just one of the many pieces of Utamaro that represent women in their true feminine light! 

Sadly, the artist was arrested for his war-oriented artworks and his love for illegal forms of Ukiyo-e pieces back in 1804. And it seems as though he never recovered from the hit. In fact, he died just two years after at the young age of 53, at the very peak of his career. To say the least, his sensual and alluring artworks stimulated other woodblock artists at the time to continue making art of a similar kind. 

The German art historian, Woldemar von Seidlitz, paying his respects to Utamaro, once said:

[Utamaro] created an absolutely new type of female beauty. At first, he was content to draw the head in normal proportions and quite definitely round in shape; only the neck on which this head was posed was already notably slender … Towards the middle of the tenth decade these exaggerated proportions of the body had reached such an extreme that the heads were twice as long as they were broad, set upon slim long necks, which in turn swayed upon very slim shoulders; the upper coiffure bulged out to such a degree that it almost surpassed the head itself in extent; the eyes were indicated by short slits, and were separated by an inordinately long nose from an infinitesimally small mouth; the soft robes hung loosely about figures of almost unearthly thinness.

A woodblock portrait of Utamaro


Utamaro (1753) Artwork for Sale at Online Auction | Utamaro (1753 … 

“Utamaro.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,


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