Village Women Pounding Mochi | Kitagawa Utamaro | 19th Century

Kitagawa Utamaro, (1753-1806), was a Japanese printmaker and painter who is considered one of the greatest artists of ukiyo-e. His focus was on the daily life of beautiful women, bathing applying make-up, smoking, and shunga (erotica) scenes. Utamaro was known especially for his masterfully composed studies of individual women in daily life, known as Bijinga (beautiful person picture).

Utamaro was born in 1753, probably in Edo (old Tokyo), and his father was an owner of a Teahouse. The low status of the ukiyo-e artist meant that the details of his life remain buried in obscurity. Records indicate that Utamaro was married, although little is known about his wife and there is no record of their having had children. There are, however, many prints of tender and intimate domestic scenes of the same woman and child over several years of the child’s growth among his works.

Sometime around mid-1780s, he went to live with the young and rising publisher, Tsutaya Jūzaburō, founder and head of the Tsutaya publishing house during the Edo period Japan, who specialized in ukiyo-e woodblock prints. By all available records, Utamaro became a principal artist for the Tsutaya firm, who represented other artists and printed books on the subject.

Around 1791, Utamaro gave up designing prints for books and concentrated on making single portraits of women displayed in half-length, rather than the prints of women in groups favored by other ukiyo-e artists. In 1793 he achieved recognition as an artist, and his semi-exclusive arrangement with the publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō was terminated. He then went on to produce several very famous series of works, all featuring women of the Yoshiwara district. Utamaro died at the age of fifty three (53) in Edo.

This woodblock is dated approximately 1776 and is unusual because it focuses on a group of women rather than a single individual. Pounding Mochi (Japanese rice cake made of glutinous rice pounded into paste and molded into shape) is a celebratory event typically featured at New Years. Mochi is used as a New Year decoration, which is traditionally broken and eaten in a ritual called Kagami biraki (mirror opening). This woodblock is in good condition for its age with visible toning, good impression and faded color. The piece is not laid down. All appropriate signatures/seals for woodblocks done by Utamaro, with publishers red seal and identification on the front of the image. Image Dimensions: 8-3/4”w x 12-1/2”h.

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