Kitagawa Utamaro Painting the Eyebrows

Kitagawa Utamaro, 1753-1806

Painting the Eyebrows

signed Utamaro hitsu with censor's seal kiwame (approved), and stylized publisher's seal of Isemago, ca. 1795-96

oban tate-e 15 by 9 7/8 in., 38 by 25.1 cm

A beauty leans forward in concentration while applying make-up to her eyebrows. We catch a glimpse of her reflection from another angle in her hand-mirror, which is highlighted with mica to suggest the polished surface. This print is associated with two other designs of women applying make-up while holding mirrors that could be arranged as a complementary trio—with this sheet placed on the right. There is only one impression recorded of the design which one would place on the left which illustrates a woman using a cloth to adjust her lip color. The design most suitable for central placement depicts an over-the-shoulder view of a woman looking in a mirror while applying white powder (white lead) to the nape of her neck, the most famous impression of which was in the Vever Collection.

All three prints are extremely scarce, but Asano & Clark managed to include an example of each in the comprehensive catalogue accompanying their landmark 1995 Utamaro exhibition at the British Museum, including a variant impression of the central design. The two portraits that have frontal views (this design and the left sheet) share an interesting printing technique with a shaded grey area along the hairline. The publisher seal of Isemago has been associated with Iseya Magobei (or Iseya Magoshiro), a comparatively small publisher for the likes of a major artist like Utamaro. Shibui records just one other Utamaro print published by the firm in circa 1794, and Marks lists a mere six print series published by Isemago between circa 1794-1807, although with a roster of established artists including Eisho (fl. ca. 1795-1801), Toyokuni (1769-1825), Shun’ei (1762-1819), Kunimasa (1773-1810), and Utamaro's student, Tsukimaro (fl. ca. 1794-1830). The rarity of these prints may be due to the small size of Isemago's operation; of the three recorded impressions of this design, this is the only one currently in private hands. Regardless of the publisher's modest output, the three Utamaro bijin-ga that he produced are representative of Utamaro's artistic virtuosity.

Shibui, Ukiyo-e Zuten: Utamaro, vol. 13, 1964, publisher's index XXII, p. 59 (this print); and p. 220 (ca. 1794 hosoban published by Magobei)
Jack Hillier, Japanese Prints and Drawings from the Vever Collection, Volume Two, 1976, pp. 396-397, no. 420 (Vever 'applying powder' impression)
Ukiyo-e Shuka, vol. 3, 1978, listed p. 240, no. 520.1-1 & 1.2
Asano & Clark, The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro, 1995, text p. 177, illus. p. 133, no. 250 (Musée National des Art Asiatiques, now Musée Guimet)
Andreas Marks, Publisher's of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium, 2011, p. 49, seal no. 15-018, p. 160, publisher no. 150

Kunsthalle Bremen, Germany
Musée Guimet, Paris, accession no. EO1879 (with dramatic oxidation of white lead pigment used on her face)



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