Art Through Time: A Global View
Converging Cultures Art: Chûbon no zu (Picture of the Middle Class)
Kitagawa Utamaro was one of the preeminent printmakers in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the late eighteenth century.
He is known for his mastery of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, or “pictures of the floating world,” which represented scenes of daily life and leisure activities in Edo as well as portraits of actors, courtesans, and other players on the urban scene.
Utamaro was especially well-known for his depictions of Japanese “beauties” and often worked in series devoted to women engaged in various activities appropriate to their gender and social standing. This print comes from a series that features women representing Edo’s clearly divided class structure. While other prints in the series portray women of the upper and lower classes, this image presents two figures marked by their clothing, environment, and behavior as members of the middle class. Utamaro emphasizes the poses of the two women through the use of clear contours and stresses the flatness of the picture plane with decorative surface patterns. Both techniques are characteristic of traditional Japanese arts in general and ukiyo-eprints in particular. At the same time, the angle of the screen, draped with black material, the bowl in the foreground, and the twisting position of the women on the floor all hint at some familiarity with European approaches to rendering three-dimensional space.
Although Japan was largely closed to contact with the outside world in the 1700s when this print was created, artists were exposed to European aesthetics both directly, through limited numbers of trade goods, and indirectly, through older works that had already incorporated Western techniques. In fact, it can be argued that the presence of European aesthetics, however subtle, is part of what made ukiyo-e prints so appealing to Western audiences when they were first introduced in the latter half of the nineteenth century. These prints, in turn, had a major impact on artists including Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Vincent van Gogh.
Davis, Julie Nelson. Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.
“The Floating World: Japanese Color Woodcuts by Kitagawa Utamaro.” In NYPL Digital Gallery. New York Public Library Web site. http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore.
Kobayashi, Tadashi, and Mark A. Harbison. Utamaro: Portraits from the Floating World. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2000.
Kobayashi, Tadashi. Ukiyo-e: An Introduction to Japanese Woodblock Prints.Tokyo: Kodanshe International, 1997.
Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art, rev. and expanded ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.