October 25, 2017
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Courtesan Playing Samisen, late 18th century, woodcut, 15 x 10 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchase/gift of the Mahonri M. Young Estate, 1959.
Today’s featured artwork is a highlight from the MOA’s Japanese woodblock print collection. As part of the generous gift of the Mahonri M. Young Estate to Brigham Young University in 1959, the museum received many original Japanese prints that Young and his father-in-law Julian Alden Weir collected to inspire their own artwork. This woodcut is one of nine works by Kitagawa Utamaro in the permanent collection of the museum. Although little is known of Utamaro’s life, he is celebrated as a master of ukiyo-e images, often translated as “pictures of the floating world,” and was widely admired by European artists in the nineteenth century.
Utamaro’s beautiful portrayal of a musician is composed almost entirely of sweeping curves and intricate patterns. The formally dressed woman, probably a geisha, seems to have momentarily turned away from the song on her music stand in a thoughtful moment as she absently adjusts one of her hair ornaments. She holds a shamisen, a kind of Japanese banjo used to accompany rhythmic folk songs. A bough of cherry blossoms at the top of the print suggests that the graceful young woman may be singing songs of springtime and youth.