Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered


Thinking about Utamaro

In March 2014, the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, made an announcement that startled the art world. The new arts center revealed it had discovered and would soon exhibit a long-lost painting attributed to Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806), the legendary Japanese artist of the natural world and feminine beauty. Since its rediscovery, scholars have been working to assess the work’s place within Utamaro’s body of work.

Titled Snow at Fukagawa, the immense painting was one of three that traveled to Paris in the late 1880s. Unprecedented in scale, meticulously detailed, and unsigned, the works’ varying sizes challenge the traditional concept of a triptych, or a three-part work. Their relationship to the long-standing theme of “snow, moon, and flowers” has suggested that the paintings may have been intended as a set, but questions remain as to how they would have functioned as such.

The three paintings idealize famous pleasure districts in Edo (now Tokyo). Each one features a different backdrop: snow, moonlight, and blossoming cherry trees. The works also are painted in different styles, suggesting that they were produced over at least a dozen years, from the late 1780s to the early 1800s.

Introduced to the Paris art market in the late nineteenth century, the paintings were quickly dispersed. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer acquired Moon at Shinagawa (also known as Moonlight Revelry at Dozō Sagami) in 1903; it is now in the Freer|Sackler collection. Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara passed through several hands in France until the Wadsworth Atheneum of Hartford, Connecticut, purchased it in the late 1950s. And Snow at Fukagawa had been missing for nearly seventy years before it resurfaced in Hakone.

Few recent discoveries in Japanese art have generated so much interest and raised so many questions. Who commissioned these large-scale works? When were they made? How were they displayed and for what occasions? Are they from the hand of Utamaro? And how do we place these works within his career?



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