Important Cultural Property
By Kitagawa Utamaro
Large Nishikie (wood engraving print)
Edo period/18th century
Tokyo National Museum
Kitagawa Utamaro is a ukiyo-e (a genre of paintings and woodblock prints developed from the Edo period to the early Meiji period) artist representing the Kansei era (1789 – 1801), the golden age of ukiyo-e, who painted a variety of beautiful women from everyday women to harlots in Yoshiwara (the licensed quarter). The series of "Musume Hidokei" is a set of five pictures that depict the everyday life of a town girl every ittoki (approximately two hours) from tatsu no koku (eight in the morning) to saru no koku (four in the afternoon). Since there is a morning glory in the picture drawn at "tatsu no koku" and the girl wears a summer kimono, these pictures are of her life in summer. In the Edo period, the length of ittoki changed by season and in summer, the ittoki was longer during the daytime than at night. Therefore, the tatsu no koku in summer corresponds to the current seven o'clock in the morning and saru no koku five o'clock in the evening.
In this series, musen-karazuri technique, a technique to represent the outlines of a face and neck not via sumi lines, but via asperities of the woodblock surface, is used: Lips were printed in red and the face was represented as if an uncarved part emerged out of the yellow background. It seems that Utamaro, who struggled to fully express female beauty, wanted to avoid using dark sumi lines that do not exist on the actual skin of girls, but express tenderness of the skin instead. These pictures demonstrate Utamaro's persistent attempt toward realistic expression, as exemplified by the smooth, flowing engraving of hair.