Sackler Gallery Reunites Monumental Utamaro Triptych April 8

Exhibition Explores the Fantasies and Realities of Edo Japan’s “Floating World”
March 10, 2017
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“Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” reunites for the first time in nearly 140 years three works by the legendary Japanese ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) master, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806). The exhibition is open at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery April 8–July 9.

Last seen together in 1879, the three paintings left Japan and traveled to Paris where they were separated and marketed by Siegfried Bing in the 1880s. Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, acquired “Moon at Shinagawa” in 1903, and today it is part of the Freer’s permanent collection. “Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara,” passed through several hands before entering the collection at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., in the late 1950s. “Snow at Fukagawa,” held by the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, was rediscovered in 2014 after missing for nearly 70 years. In 2014, the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, announced the discovery and acquisition of “Snow at Fukagawa.” Whereabouts of that painting had been unknown since the late 1940s.

Separately conceived exhibitions inspired by the monumental triptych will occur at each of these museums, although all will be different in scope and content. Due to conditions of Freer’s will and bequest, the Sackler will be the only venue to show all three pieces. A facsimile of the Freer’s “Moon at Shinagawa” will be displayed at the other two locations.

The Sackler exhibition explores the carefully constructed persona of Utamaro and the many questions surrounding his work and subject matter. The trio, painted in ukiyo-e style, idealize Edo’s (modern day Tokyo) “floating world”—pleasure centers of leisure, consisting of numerous brothels, which served as diversions from the pressures of everyday life. Unusual in scale and meticulously detailed, the three paintings portray the romanticized lives and appearances of workers of these quarters. Little is known about Utamaro’s life, but to this day he is considered one of the greatest artists of the ukiyo-e genre.

Utamaro began his study of painting in the studio of Toriyama Sekien, who introduced him to the publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō, forever transforming his career. Together, they promoted the pleasure quarter, setting the tone for Utamaro’s success and brand as a connoisseur of female beauty that was carried throughout his career.

By the 1890s, Japan and the West had become uncomfortable and overwhelmed with the changes, including societal changes, caused by modern industrialization and internationalism. In Paris, in particular, the craze for things Japanese and “oriental” found a uniquely receptive market for paintings and prints of Japan’s “courtesans” and pleasure quarters.

The exhibition frames these reunited paintings in the context of two moments of “branding and marketing”: first, the clever selling of Utamaro’s persona in his own time as a connoisseur of women, someone perfectly suited to create accurate and emotionally resonant images of the “beauties,” and second, the adroit response of Japanese and Western art dealers to the special moment of receptivity to the Japanese “beauty” in fin-de-siècle Paris. This created a uniquely receptive market and audience in the West, with Paris at its center, which craved a return to civilized behaviors and romanticized moments of pleasure.

At this time, a glamorized image of “old Edo” began to emerge as Japan struggled to hold onto its traditional identity and values in the face of this rapid change. Japanese art became an embodiment of the desire for simpler times and Utamaro’s work captured a sense of this world before it had permanently passed into memory. The exhibition examines how these two moments in time, Paris during the end of the century and the 1780s, when Utamaro created his paintings, are simultaneously separated and connected through the need for fantasy and escape. Utamaro, as a carefully constructed persona and brand, was deliberately marketed both as an artist and as a personality to advance the introduction of Japanese art to collectors in Europe and the United States.

Equally as carefully managed by international Japanese art dealers were depictions of the “floating world,” promoting a fantastical depiction that illustrated an unsullied and harmonious world—one in stark contrast to the fast-paced and often gritty world that replaced it. Dealers, striking upon the West’s desire for the exoticism of the “Orient,” made deliberate and self-conscious efforts in the late 19th century to refine the concept of what Japanese art could mean for Western consumers and expanded the market by introducing ukiyo-e, alongside binjutsu or fine art, to collectors. Through the carefully concerted efforts of art dealers, Utamaro became a predominant tour de force in the visual arts exported by Japan.

Utamaro’s work was well known both in Japan and Europe and the exhibition places him in the larger context of Japonisme, the influence of Japanese art on Western art. Since the mid-1850s, Japan strategically sought exposure in world markets and eventually the demand for Japanese Edo-period works skyrocketed. Art dealers exported thousands of Japanese works to Europe and Northern America. The exhibition showcases Edo-period prints, books and paintings, mostly by Utamaro revealing his artistic persona and influence on the time as well as his skill at depicting female beauty. Other period works will also be on view with the common theme being beautiful women. 

“The rediscovery of ‘Snow at Fukagawa’ has presented the unique opportunity to reunite these paintings,” said James Ulak, Sackler senior curator of Japanese art. “Seeing Utamaro as a successfully fabricated persona in his own time and at the moment that Charles Freer assembled his collection certainly frames our assessment in a new and deeply informative light.” 

The exhibition includes significant loans from The British Museum, the John C. Weber Collection and several anonymous private lenders. Important books, prints and paintings from the Sackler’s permanent collection will also be on display.

Programs related to the exhibition include a conversation with co-curators Ulak and Julie Nelson Davis April 8 at 2 p.m. Also, during opening week, special performances of Rakugo, and a traditional Japanese form of comic theater with actor Katsura Sunshine will bring to life some of Utamaro’s masterpieces April 9 and April 12 at 2 p.m. Details and a full listing of related programs are available at

“Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” will be on view during the Washington National Cherry Blossom Festival, which runs March 20 through April 16.

Mitsubishi Corp. is the lead sponsor for “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered.” Additional support is provided by the Anne van Biema Endowment Fund.

About the Freer and Sackler Galleries

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., together comprise the nation’s museum of Asian art. It contains one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world, featuring more than 40,000 objects ranging in time from the Neolithic to the present day, with especially fine groupings of Islamic art, Chinese jades, bronzes and paintings and the art of the ancient Near East. The galleries also contain important masterworks from Japan, ancient Egypt, South and Southeast Asia and Korea, as well as the Freer’s noted collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler. The Freer, which will be closed during the exhibition, is scheduled to reopen Oct. 14, with modernized technology and infrastructure, refreshed gallery spaces and an enhanced Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium.

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Jennifer Mitchell