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The most representative Japanese color-print artist of the Ukiyo-e, or Popular, school, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) was one of the first Japanese artists to be consistently popular in the West. He was born in Edo (modern Tokyo), where he received his initial training and was influenced by the elegant style of Torii Kiyonaga.
By 1791 Utamaro had developed an entirely personal style, his prints being notable for their close-up quality. He concentrated on the busts and faces of his models, specializing in painting court ladies (for example, Catching Butterflies, Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and other elegant women of his time and striving to convey the many aspects of feminine charm. His style is distinguished by the graceful faces, a flowing representation of clothes, precision of detail and a meticulous observation of posture and expression. He was a sensitive physiognomist and psychologist and expressed a full spectrum of emotion in purely plastic terms.
Sometimes, in opposition to Japanese tradition, Utamaro abandoned the use of drawn outlines and let the color alone suggest form. His heroines were the bijin (beautiful girls), who represent the female ideal of the period. This probably explains his phenomenal success, for there was an overwhelming demand for his prints and his albums of flowers, birds and fish.
Towards the end of his life he was imprisoned by the Tokugawa government for depicting the great war lord Hideyoshi being entertained by five concubines in a luxurious setting. At the same time such color artists as Hokusai and Toyokuni began to gain popularity and overshadow Utamaro. As a result of these developments he experienced humiliation and came to resent his contemporaries.