Utamaro's artistic career evolved in a gradual, tentative manner, and his distinctive creative talents did not become really apparent until he reached his mid-thirties. The earliest group of his designs, beginning in the mid-1770s, consists of commonplace illustrations for cheap popular books, such as the librettos and guides to the theater produced for patrons of the Kabuki stage or the vernacular farces or novelettes known as kibyôshi. Under the name Toyoaki he also began to design a few undistinguished single-sheet depictions of actors in the manner of Katsukawa Shunshô. About 1782 he took the name Utamaro. By the end of the decade he was not only producing multi-sheet compositions of figures superbly composed in interior and landscape scenes, but he was also designing some of the most beautiful illustrated books in the history of ukiyo-e, works such as Ehon mushi erami (1788, Insect Book), Kyoôgetsubô (1789, Moon-Mad Monk), Ginsekai (1790, Silver World), and in the same or following year Shiohi no tsuto (Gifts of Ebb Tide) and Momo chidori kyôka awase (Bird Book).
Utamaro's creative efforts during the Kansei era (1789-1801), when he produced his most distinctive and memorable designs, were devoted mainly to exploring the compositional potentialities of single-sheet prints, most often in the standard ôban (38 by 25 cm; 15 by 10 in) size, vertically disposed. The figural subjects that appear in Utamaro's single-sheet prints of the 1790s range from full-figure to half-torso and close-up depictions. These prints of lovely courtesans and teahouse girls represent the final and most complete realization of this quintessential subject in the history of ukiyo-e. They are, in fact, among the most accomplished and eloquent expressions of feminine beauty in Japanese art. A salient aspect of Utamaro's conceptual preoccupation with women is his perennial interest in showing them in their most characteristic surroundings and revealing circumstances. Thus a significant number of his full-figure prints show the popular beauties and demi-mondaines situated either in their shops or in the great houses of pleasure in the Yoshiwara district. Utamaro's artistic evolution is marked by a persistent interest in scrutinizing these women from ever greater proximity, as shown by his taste for half-torso and ôkubi-e (bust-depiction) prints. Many of his representations of women are idealized stereotypes, but his prints of celebrated beauties such as Naniwaya Okita and Takashimaya Ohisa, with their attention to subtle differences of physiognomy, qualify as portraiture.
Utamaro produced designs for many publishers, but his closest relationship was with Tsutaya Jûzaburô (1750-97), who produced a significant number of his masterpieces. It was Utamaro's good fortune to come under his guidance in the late 1770s and benefit from his discerning patronage until Tsutaya's death. Utamaro is thought to have resided with Tsutaya during these years. Association with Tsutaya guaranteed an artist that the prints made from his designs would not only be faithful to the original but also be executed in the most meticulous and discerning fashion, for the wood engravers and printers who labored in Tustaya's shop were unquestionably among the finest artisans of the day.
During the 1790s Utamaro was the most widely emulated artist in ukiyo-e. However, a decline in the originality and creative vitality of his works set in at the end of this period. In 1804 Utamaro was imprisoned for depicting the great historical figure Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) in a manner that the authorities considered disrespectful. Although his incarceration was relatively brief, his failing creative energies seem to have suffered further as a result, and he died two years later.
from Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Kodansha Ltd, ©1993