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Very little is known about Utamaro’s early life. He was born circa 1753 as Kitagawa Ichitaro. The name of his parents is unknown, although some scholars suggest that his father was the artist Toriyama Sekien, who was his tutor, and wrote about young Utamaro playing in his garden - although this fact cannot be confirmed. Son or not, Sekien described him as a bright pupil and very devoted to art. Although being trained in the Kano School of Japanese painting, which was aimed for the upper-class, Sekien became a ukiyo-e practitioner, focusing his art towards more simple townspeople in Edo. His pupils included haiku poets as well as ukiyo-e artists, such as Eishosai Choki, who was one of his noteworthy students.
Utamaro’s first published work was possibly an illustration for a poetry anthology published in 1770. For almost the entire decade, Utamaro, under the name of Kitagawa Toyoaki, worked mainly on book illustrations for popular literature, and would often create yakusha-e portraits for kabuki actors. In 1782, Utamaro was chosen by Tsutaya Juzaburo, the young and ambitious publisher, often regarded as the most important and prolific ukiyo-e publishers of the Edu period, to work together as his publisher. Shortly after, Kitagawa hosted a lavish banquet when he announced the use of his new artistic name: Utamaro.
Around 1791, Utamaro decided to stop designing prints for books in order to concentrate on making portraits of women, opposing other ukiyo-e artists who favored them in a group. This style levered his recognition, and in 1793 he ended his arrangement with Juzaburo, although they remained friends. This allowed Utamaro to focus further on his portraits, executing a large number of his well-known artworks, all depicting women of the Yoshiwara district. Over the years Utamaro also produced several other types of art, such as animal, insect and nature studies as well as shunga, or erotica.
Tsutaya Juzaburo died in 1797, which struck Utamaro in a hard way, making him very upset by the loss of his supporter and life-long friend. Some scholars suggest that his grief was such that his artwork never again reached the heights it previously achieved. In 1804, Utamaro was censored and arrested because some of the prints he produced depicted important samurais, authorities and historical figures, which was prohibited. The censorship was harsh, and penalties were often cruel. This episode made Utamaro sink even further into his depression, but despite his disease, he continued to produce until his death. Utamaro had many pupils, who took names such as Hidemaro and Takemaro, the most successful of them was Tsukimaro.
Kitagawa Utamaro died in October 21, 1806.