Born in 1753 (to 1806), Kitagawa Utamaro is best known for his slender and graceful bijin-ga, or “pictures of beautiful women,” Renowned for his ability to subtly capture the personality and private lives of Edo’s women, from courtesans to mothers, Utamaro’s enormous popularity was not limited to Japan. During the 19th century, Utamaro entranced Western artists and collectors with his designs; Mary Cassat was particularly taken by Utamaro’s work, exclaiming, “you who want to make color prints, you couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful.”
The scholar and artist Sekien served as Utamaro’s teacher until Seiken’s death in 1788. While the influence of Kiyonaga coursed through Utamaro’s early woodblock prints, his unique style soon asserted itself. A prolific artist, he also produced illustrated books and paintings. Around 1791, he directed his focus to half portraits of women on their own, rather than the full-length, group designs that dominated the genre of bijin-ga.