Utamaro Kitagawa (born Ichitaro Kitagawa) was born around 1750. Little is known about his life, his birthplace or his parents. It is generally believed that he started his career as a student of the painter Toriyama Sekien. Early known works include actor portraits and theater programs published under the name of Utagawa Toyoaki. In 1781 or 1782 he changed his name to Kitigawa Utamaro. In 1783 he began a successful collaboration with Tsutaya Juzaburo and together they published several book illustrations. Utamaro’s early works were influenced by Harunobu and Torii Kiyonaga.
From 1791 on, Utamaro concentrated on producing single portraits of women, taking his models from the streets or from the pleasure-district of Yoshiwara. In 1793, he received great recognition as a result of a new series of women prints. Although he is known to have depicted women beautifully, Utamaro did not show them in their real natural physiognomy. His women have very tall, slender bodies and their heads are twice as long as they are broad. Their noses are long and their eyes and mouths are depicted as tiny slits. The necks are long, the shoulders small.
In 1804, Utamaro ran into trouble with the authorities for violation of censorship laws. He published a print containing an historic scene depicting the ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi with his wife and several concubines. The print was taken offensively by the ruling Shogunate of the Tokugawa family. Utamaro was imprisoned for a short time and sentenced to wear hand-cuffs for 50 days. The experience had a devastating effect on him and he fell into a deep depression, dying two years later at the age of 53. Following his death, his pupil, Koikawa Shuncho, took Utamaro’s name and continued to produce beautiful women prints in the style of his master until 1820.
It is estimated that Utamaro produced over 2,000 prints, plus a number of paintings, surimono prints, and illustrated books, among them some 30 shunga books containing erotic scenes.