While the genre known as 美人画 (bijin-ga, portraits of beautiful women) has existed throughout Japanese art history, woodblock prints and paintings produced for townspeople featuring beauties gained popularity from the late 17th century. By looking at the art of several big name bijin-ga artists, we can trace the evolution of this art form and how women were portrayed at the time.
Japan’s painters of beautiful women
The name 喜多川歌麿 (Kitagawa Utamaro, c.1753-1806) brings to mind images of beautiful Japanese women. His artwork serves as one of the major faces of Japanese 浮世絵 (ukiyo-e), a genre comprised of “pictures of the floating world,” for many both within and outside of Japan. However, the history of ukiyo-e stretches out for three hundred years, and there were many other artists who excelled in drawing lovely women. Let’s take a look at some notable figures and the type of work that made them famous.
The father of ukiyo-e
“A Beauty Looking Back” by Hishikawa Moronobu, Tokyo National Museum.
For example, 菱川師宣 (Hishikawa Moronobu, 1618-1694), who was active around the start of the Edo period during the early decades of the seventeenth century, could be called the father of all ukiyo-e artists. His best-known work, “A Beauty Looking Back,” demonstrates that he can also be called the father of pictures of beautiful women. Moronobu taught himself traditional drawing techniques and produced works in both brush and wood block, and he is seen as having laid the foundation for ukiyo-e.
The pioneer of color
Another technique which brought revolutionary changes to ukiyo-e was 錦絵 (nishiki-e, “brocade” prints), which made possible fresh, rich new colors. This technique was invented by 鈴木春信 (Suzuki Harunobu, 1725-1770) whose specialty was drawings modeled on the young women who tried to attract customers into their teahouses, and his works served to bring crowds of customers to the teahouses he illustrated. His drawings created a boom in the popularity of ukiyo-e.
Suzuki Harunobu, Young Woman Jumping from the Kiyomizu Temple Balcony
Medium-sized nishiki-e brocade calendar picture, 1765. Image: Bridgeman Images (PPS)
During the Edo period, popular tradition said that if you could jump from the 13-meter-high balcony of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple without getting hurt, then your wish would be fulfilled. It is said that some eighty percent of the jumpers lived, some albeit with injuries. This picture displays a beautiful young woman in single-minded concentration on fulfilling her decision.
Imbuing women with delicate grace
鳥居清長 (Torii Kiyonaga, 1752-1815) was part of the same lineage. Unlike Harunobu’s young women, however, Kiyonaga’s popularity came from his depiction of the delicate figures of young women at work in Edo whose heads were one-eighth the height of their figures.
Torii Kiyonaga, First Dream of the New Year (excerpt)
Single panel of a large nishiki-e brocade triptych, c. 1786, Yamaguchi Prefectural Hagi Uragami Museum.
Against the background of Mt. Fuji, a lovely woman sits on a folding stool with a young woman standing next to her. The face of each is much smaller than those of people of today, only one eighth of the height of the body, giving an impression of stylish slimness of the sort that only ukiyo-e can convey.
Model-like representations of women
Ukiyo-e reached its heights in the late eighteenth century, and a new master of depicting lovely women who appeared around that time was 鳥文斎栄之 (Chobunsai Eishi, 1756-1829). His women were drawn in a surprisingly tall and slender style, with heads one-twelfth the height of the figures, and their strong impact on the viewers accounted for his popularity.
Choubunsai Eishi, Six Blossoming Immortals of Yoshiwara: “Kisegawa of Matsubaya”
Large nishiki-e brocade picture, c. 1793-1794. Image: Yamaguchi Prefectural Hagi Uragami Museum
Eishi won popularity rivaling that of Utamaro, and Eishi’s beautiful women seemed to be in stark defiance of the portrait style, since they featured faces only one-twelfth of the body length. Eishi, originally a hatamoto or direct retainer of the shogun, drew beautiful women notable for their restrained sensuality.
The master painter of women
And then, with the appearance of Utamaro, the pictures of beautiful women reached even greater refinement and attained new heights.
Kitagawa Utamaro, Ten Types in the Physiologic Study of Women: “The Fickle Type”
Large nishiki-e brocade picture with mica-powder background, c.1792-1793. Image: Tanaka Machio (PPS)
In his Ten Types in the Physiologic Study of Women series, one of the works most closely associated with Utamaro, the artist presents a variety of drawings as he seeks to classify all the beautiful women of ukiyo-e by personality type. This picture captures an instant when a woman, fresh from her bath, glances back over her shoulder, and her rather standoffish expression gives an insight into her sentimental nature, making her prone to being fickle.