Long-lost painting’s rediscovery puts ukiyoe in international spotlight

By Alexandra Hongo

It’s a chilly day for the ladies in Fukagawa, but none of them seems to mind the cold. The 26 courtesans in the painting are preparing for a yet another long day on the job: a lady carries a tray with food, another crouches under a heavy futon (could it be a drunk customer inside?); a beauty retouches her makeup; geishas practice new tunes. An elderly woman, perhaps of a higher rank, leans on the wooden bars observing. The trees are covered in snow — but like everything else in this licensed pleasure district — this too will vanish soon.

The beauties in Snow in Fukagawa, circa 1802-06, are a few of the last Utamaro Kitagawa (1753–1806), Japan’s master of bijinga (beauty portraits) and shunga (erotic wood prints), is presumed to have painted in his lifetime. The final installment in Snow, Moon and Flowers, a three-part masterpiece depicting a day at three of the then most popular pleasure areas in Edo (now Tokyo), the painting was last seen in 1948, after which it mysteriously disappeared from the art scene. In March 2014, however, Japan’s Okada Museum of Art, startled the world by announcing that it had discovered and reclaimed the work. And now, this miraculous rediscovery not only completes the trio, but it also once again puts ukiyoe in the international spotlight.

Utamaro: The women-expert without a face  

By the time Snow in Fukagawa was complete, Utamaro had already earned his reputation as “the man who loved women”: a close observant of femininity and courtesans in Japan’s most flourishing licensed brothels of the time. Utamaro’s works on Edo’s women are so profound and so abundant that it would be difficult to think of any other Japanese artist more intent on the opposite sex.

Yet, despite the nearly 2,000 prints he supposedly produced in his lifetime, his life is, to date, veiled in mystery. What we know is that Utamaro was probably born in 1753, possibly in Edo, may have been married and may have had a child; he may have lived in one of Edo's pleasure quarters, or may have had a father who did. His work on Edo’s beauties began in the 1780s when he was spotted by a famous publisher at the time as a “brush for hire,” or an artist making pictures on demand for a patron. Utamaro’s works would gain enormous popularity, establishing him among the most sought-after ukiyoe artists and a specialist in the genre of “beauties.” Yet, no letters, diaries or other records that reveal Utamaro’s life and personality remain. To the modern art world, Utamaro has no face, nor clear existence.

Snow, Moon, Flowers: Reunited at last  

As if to reinforce the mystery surrounding its author, Utamaro’s Snow, Moon, Flowers remains one of the most sensational triptych paintings in the history of ukiyoe, if not art itself. The paintings, each published in a different time period and size, represent Edo’s licensed brothels as places of ultimate pleasure and leisure. Moon at Shinagawa, circa 1788, depicts an evening at the Shinagawa brothel; Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara, circa 1793, presents a spring day of joy under the cherry trees, whereas Snow at Fukagawa, the largest and latest of the three, sees women at work on a cold, Japanese winter day. The three paintings’ titles hint of a fleeting moment in one’s life: a temporal happiness, satisfaction and pleasure; the darkside of commerce disguised in pretty faces.

Last seen together in 1879, the three paintings are believed to have been brought to France and presented at the Paris World Expo the previous year. The paintings were soon dispersed: Charles Lang Freer, the founder of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, acquired Moon at Shinagawa in 1903; Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara passed through several hands before entering the collection at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in the U.S. in the late 1950s; whereas Snow at Fukagawa returned to Japan in the post WWII period as part of a buyer’s private collection. Following two short displays at the famous Matsuzaka department store in the late 1940s, the painting went missing until its discovery by the Okada Museum.

This year, the three paintings will finally be reunited at the same place and time for the first time since the 1880s at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The gallery owns Moon at Shinagawa and — due to its founder Charles Lang Freer’s will that no paintings should leave the gallery —  is the only place in the world to show all three original pieces together.

In spotlight again: Inventing Utamaro

The reunification of the three paintings and the discovery of Snow has triggered a new ukiyoe interest around the world, largely because the discovery has opened a new Pandora’s box for all ukiyoe fans and scholars. The trio’s mysterious separation —and discovery—have prompted many to raise more questions about Utamaro and his artistic period, than we already have answered. When exactly did Utamaro make them and for what purpose? Why were two of the paintings preserved in the West, whereas the last one went missing in Japan? And how and when was it discovered? These and more questions are yet to be answered.

Japan and the world were quick to look at Utamaro’s works again. Following the rediscovery, the Okada Museum of Art invited the public for an exclusive display of the missing work in 2014, preparing the world for a new Utamaro and ukiyoe fad. In 2015, the Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo organized a shunga exhibition, displaying a number of Utamaro’s erotic works. The exhibition attracted over 210,000 visitors in three months. This year, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut, where Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara is preserved, presented “Utamaro And The Lure Of Japan”, the museum’s first exhibit of exclusively Japanese art at the Atheneum since 1951.

And now the largest of them all, the over a century long-anticipated reunion of the trio, is about to take place at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

“Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered,” which will be on display from April 7 through July 9, though commemorating the reunification of the paintings, is not a retrospective exhibition. It focuses on framing the artworks in the context of three historical moments of “branding and marketing”: first, the genius selling of Utamaro’s persona as a connoisseur of women; second, the response of art dealers to Japanese “beauty” in Paris and the West in general at the time; and third: the way ukiyoe and Japanese art is perceived in our days. The exhibition places Utamaro in the larger context of 19th century and modern-day Japonisme — the influence of Japanese art on Western art.

But above all, the exhibition provides an opportunity to answer the question we have all secretly wished to ask: what is the significance of snow, moon and flowers in Utamaro’s legendary work? As we look into the paintings in search for answers, it all starts to make sense: This historical art is here to stay — even after the snow has melted and the flowers have scattered, the moon will rise and a new day will begin again.

For more information on “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered,” click here.

A special exhibition displaying Snow in Futagawa and Flowers in Yoshiwara, as well as a replica of Moon in Shinagawa, preserved at the Freer Gallery of Art, will be on display at the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, from July 28 through October 29, 2017. For more details, click here.

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A very interesting article. What a shame that the three original paintings will be reunited in Washington DC and not Japan. Still, it should make for a pleasant trip out to Hakone in summer.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I love ukiyoe

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The article needs to emphasize that these are original paintings and not the woodblock Ukiyoe hanga that we are more accustomed to seeing, which themselves are often three to a triptych.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

It would be great if these pictures could expand to full screen size. They are too tiny to see any detail.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

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