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Utamaro: Aspects of Beauty

May 13, 2006–October 22, 2006
Gallery 107

According to Timothy Clark of the British Museum, Japanese print designer Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) invested his images of elegant women with "passion, immediacy, and a degree of psychological nuance." This exhibition explores this aspect of Utamaro's work in two installations that draw upon the museum's collection of more than 300 woodblock prints.

Utamaro's earliest works were actor prints in the style of the Katsukawa School. His focus changed in 1780, when he joined the publishing house of Tsutaya Juzaburo (1750-1797). In collaboration with the publisher, Utamaro developed the signature characteristics of his work. He perfected ingenious compositions in which the diaphanous garments that clothe his subjects  subtly reveal underlying layers of fabric. The fashions of the day, in hairstyles and clothing, were reproduced in elaborate detail. Utamaro's prints also record the hidden lives of courtesans and the everyday lives of ordinary women at work or at home, including some of the most tender scenes of lovers to be found in Japanese prints.

The women of the Yoshiwara, the so-called "Pleasure Quarters," particularly fascinated him, and he returned to them often as subjects. In the print illustrated here, a geisha and her attendant carry a shamisen case, hurrying through the night rain, their faces illuminated from below by lanterns. It was also during the collaboration with Tsutaya Juzaburo that Utamaro created a number of extraordinary illustrated books, considered as some of the best examples published during the Edo period (1615-1868). Several editions are on display.

View works from the first part of this exhibition.
View works from the second part of this exhibition.


Art Institute of Chicago


Janice Katz, Art Institute of Chicago

Kitagawa Utamaro. Geisha and Attendant on a Rainy Night, c. 1797. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gaylord Donnelley.