Utamaro is regarded as one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists of all time. Considered by many the finest master of bijin-ga (pictures of beauties), Utamaro was able to convey subtle aspects of mood and personality that go beyond physical beauty. His evocative, sensual beauties have justly earned him an international reputation.
Not much is known about the early life of Utamaro. He studied painting with the artist Sekien, but Kiyonaga's woodblock print designs of graceful women probably had the greatest influence on Utamaro's work.
Utamaro established his mature style in the 1790s, creating graceful, elegant beauties and courtesans with a unique insight into mood and personality. His idealized women have a sensual beauty reinforced by Utamaro's fluid, elegant line and his use of sumptuously patterned fabrics and rich mica backgrounds. In addition to his well-known bust-length portraits, Utamaro also did scenes of women at work, famous lovers, erotic books (shunga), beauties from legend and history, and festivals and outdoor scenes.
In 1804, Utamaro was arrested and briefly imprisoned for violating censorship laws for a historical print depicting the Shogun Hideyoshi, whose heir had been deposed by the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. He was never quite the same after this experience, and although he continued to create prints, he died two years later.
During his lifetime, Utamaro designed around two thousand prints. His best-known series include Ten Studies in Female Physiognomy, Twelve Hours in the Yoshiwara, and Great Love Themes of Classical Poetry (Women in Love).