- Museum number
Painting, hanging scroll. Standing courtesan reading a letter. Ink and colour on paper. Signed and sealed.
- Production date
Height: 215.70 centimetres (mount)
Height: 125.60 centimetres (painting)
Width: 69.20 centimetres (mount)
Width: 53.50 centimetres (painting)
- Curator's comments
Kyoko Kusunoki, Monique Pullan, Anna Harrison, Iwataro-Yasuhiro Oka, Keisuke Sugiyama & Caroline Cartwright, Kitagawa Utamaro's ‘Standing Courtesan Reading a Letter’: the collaborative conservation of a master scroll painting and its silk mount, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 44:1 (2021), 47-65
A Yoshiwara courtesan, dressed in sumptuous robes and wearing multiple hair ornaments, stands reading a letter – presumed to be from a client or suitor (the text is illegible). Her under-robe has a pattern of scarlet and white starfish in white tie-dye; the surcoat in shades of blue and white has a design of flocking plovers. The stiff brocade sash, with a pattern of decorative roundels, is tied at the front, as was the fashion for courtesans. Her bare feet suggest she is in her private apartments at Yoshiwara pleasure quarter.
Although Utamaro was a painter of crucial importance within the Ukiyo-e school, at present only about forty genuine works by him are currently known or recorded. This is undoubtedly the result of high attrition due to the regular fires and other disasters which Edo (later Tokyo) has suffered. Utamaro’s hanging scroll paintings are technically highly accomplished and typically they show the voluptuous figure of a beautiful woman dressed in lavish robes, posed in a simple setting, as here. The most complete assemblage of paintings by Utamaro to date, some seventeen works, was brought together for the exhibition The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro staged at the British Museum and Chiba City Museum of Art in 1995 and published in the catalogue at that time. Tim Clark, with co-curator Asano Shūgō was able to survey many of the surviving paintings by Utamaro in world collections, as preparation for that exhibition.
Two paintings by Utamaro already known invite comparison. In terms of the style of painting the face of the courtesan, the painting Courtesan Playing the Shamisen (99.16, on silk) in the collection of the Freer-Sackler Gallery, Washington DC is extremely close – down to the cast of the eyes, eyebrows and nose and the way these are painted, also the use of iridescent green lipstick on the lower lip. The overall dark, saturated colour scheme also invites comparison. In terms of the size and prominence of the figure, the only work which comes close is Beauty Undressing (on silk, Important Cultural Property) in the collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, which is 117.0 x 53.3 cm and has a similar treatment of the woman’s bare foot.
The hairstyle of the present work – particularly the manner in which the profile of the side-locks dips inwards before coming to a point – invites comparison with several prints from Utamaro’s latest period of activity which bear date seals in 1806 (the artist died in the ninth month, 1806).
In his annotated version of the biographical listing of ukiyo-e artists known as Ukiyo-e ruikō (1844), the historian Saitō Gesshin reported that when publishers realised that Utamaro I would not recover from his final illness, they hurriedly tried to find other artists who could produce works in his style, but that no-one could match his skill. Prints in Utamaro style bearing date seals after the death of Utamaro I are known; however, these generally have a distinctive ‘rose-bud’ mouth and a less accomplished manner of depicting the face and drapery. It is generally accepted that Utamaro II (as he has been dubbed) was the popular author-artist Koikawa Harumachi II (dates unknown). The present painting has a style and technique which is far more accomplished than Utamaro II was capable of and can be accepted with confidence as a genuine work by Utamaro I.
(T. Clark, 12/1/2015)
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2018 Oct-2019 Apr, BM Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries
- Acquisition date
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Asia painting number: Jap.Ptg.Add.1342