Objects in focus
Rediscovering a rare Japanese painting by Utamaro

Courtesans (high ranked sex workers) were expected to provide glamorous and cultivated company, as well as sexual services, to those wealthy clients who could afford the extravagant expense. In reality though, their lives could be harsh. In Utamaro’s art this exploitation was only rarely alluded to, although it was significant at the time that he represented it at all.

Kitagawa Utamaro (d. 1806), Courtesan reading a letter. Ink and colour on paper, about 1805–1806.
Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest in memory of her parents, Rudolf and Julie Buch, and with Art Fund support (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and by the Brooke Sewell Bequest.

Utamaro’s greatest prints and paintings, including this rare hanging scroll, invite us to spy on apparently intimate private moments in the lives of these fabled women. Few could even catch a glimpse of them in real life. The courtesan in the painting is barefoot, so she must be in her luxurious apartments in Yoshiwara, the large government-licensed brothel district in Edo, modern Tokyo. Yoshiwara was the epicentre of the so-called ‘floating world’ of pleasure-seeking – mainly for men – and artist Utamaro was in a way its chief publicist.

Look at how the woman seems to be intently reading the love letter from her suitor – her mouth open, lips slack and eyes angled as she eagerly devours its contents. It was this clever psychological dimension, as well as the skill of his brush, that set Utamaro above all his contemporaries and many imitators.


In 1804, however, Utamaro was punished by the samurai authorities for an infringement of censorship laws. He was sentenced to house arrest, with his hands manacled for 50 days, a symbolic punishment designed to hinder and humiliate artists and writers who, of course, lived by their brushes. The consensus has been that after this – until his early death in 1806 – Utamaro’s career was in decline. However, the fashions and hairstyle of the woman in this powerful and accomplished painting can only date from 1805-1806, undermining the old theory.

One interesting piece of evidence was a small courtesan print by Hokusai in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The Hokusai print is dateable to 1806 and it features on a sash hanging over a kimono stand the same ‘lucky jewel’ pattern seen around the padded hem of the robe in the Utamaro painting. This is the emblem of a particular club of poets who wrote so-called ‘crazy verses’ (kyōka). Did a wealthy member of the poetry club perhaps commission both works?

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Haru Akebono. Ukiyo-e colour woodblock print, 1806. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
This print was part of a series made for the Tsubogawa poetry group whose emblem is seen on the draped obi (sash) and on the robes of the attendants.

Detail of the courtesan’s robe in Utamaro’s painting, revealing the same ‘lucky jewel’ pattern design.

The powerful sweep of the woman’s robes and her statuesque pose, show that Utamaro was experimenting with a bold new style right up to the end of his life. The historian Saitō Gesshin, writing in 1844, tells us that when publishers realised that the artist was not going to recover from his final illness, they searched around for other artists to match his skill. There was no-one. So, influenced by Utamaro’s late work, the next generation of artists of the popular ‘floating world’, or ukiyo-e, school – such as Eizan, Eisen and Kunisada – all took up stylistically where this painting leaves off.

I first saw this painting in 2013. It was previously unknown and unrecorded. To say my heart skipped a beat is an understatement. The (not quite) half-million dollar question: was the painting genuine? I spent a long time comparing it in detail with other paintings accepted as genuine – only around 50 have survived –and searching out various other bits of evidence to help date the work. In due course, all of the Utamaro scholars around the world, whose opinions I most respect, came to agree that the painting is genuine, and so I felt confident to recommend it for acquisition by the British Museum.

When the painting came to the British Museum it had been cut down from a full-size hanging scroll. The top and the bottom of the mounting were missing and there was minor cracking of the painting surface in several places. After much discussion with conservators, we decided that we should try to preserve not only Utamaro’s painting itself, but also the beautiful mounting fabric, with its maple leaves that are partly dyed and partly embroidered. This fabric undoubtedly comes from an old kimono – though this particular mounting was probably added to the scroll about a hundred years after the work was painted.

Detail of the mounting fabric on the scroll, likely to have originated from a kimono.

Now that the Yoshiwara beauty has been restored to her full glamour, it is time for her to make her debut in the British Museum’s newly-refurbished Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries.

The newly-refurbished Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries re-open on 27 September 2018. 

Sponsored by Mitsubishi Corporation. 

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