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And the Spectacle of Beauty

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) was one of the most influential artists working in the genre of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” in late eighteenth-century Japan. In particular, he was widely appreciated for his prints of beautiful women. In this book, Julie Nelson Davis draws on a wide range of sources and her own sophisticated analysis of his works to reinterpret Utamaro within the context of his times.
Reconstructing the place of the ukiyo-e artist within the commercial print market of eighteenth-century Japan, Davis situates Utamaro’s oeuvre within the artistic culture that surrounded him, demonstrating how his images participated in a larger spectacle of beauty that characterized the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo). Walking the streets of Edo with Utamaro, she follows his life and output up until his arrest for insulting military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (for depicting his wife and concubines), which would destroy his career just as it reached its pinnacle. Examining how Utamaro and other artists of his time engaged with the construction of gender, identity, sexuality, and celebrity, Davis makes a larger contribution to art history as a whole. 

296 pages | 66 color plates, 48 halftones | 7 1/2 x 9 3/4 | © 2007

Art: Middle Eastern, African, and Asian Art

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“By offering [a] new approach to the constructions of identity, to the roles of gender, sexuality and celebrity in the Edo period, Davis here makes a significant contribution to the field in showing us the constructed nature of the spectacle of beauty . . . her publishers have done her proud. Reaktion Books are always beautifully designed and this one, with its full-color illustrations from all the Utamaro series, its art paper and its elegant binding is one of the best.”

Japan Times

“This beautifully illustrated volume presents an engaging argument which will be of interest to a readership with prior knowledge of Edo art history.”

Art Book

“Davis provides a succinct and credible overview of Utamaro's career, one devoid of the romanticized drama found in most treatments of this artist . . . Drawing on the research of Edo culture specialists, Davis treats the reader to a series of interesting and informative essays on such topics as the publishing industry, the Tenmei-era gesaku community, the history of the Yoshiwara and its protocols, the pseudoscience of physiognomy, and the Kansei reforms.”

Monumenta Nipponica

“Handsomely produced and copiously illustrated. . . . Davis has written a book that skillfully synthesizes a broad range of historical, cultural and artistic data that underscore the degree to which the conventional understanding of the floating world artist is an illusion constructed with the collusion of the viewer. General reader and scholars alike will appreciate her careful analyses of the multi-layered visual and verbal meanings of Utamaro's most familiar print series.”

Print Quarterly

Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty makes a significant contribution to the field of ukiyo-e studies by aptly showing that past readings of Utamaro as one au fait with the life of women has limited our understanding of the complexity of social factors that led to such a construct. By approaching her reading of the Utamaro style as the concept of a publishing industry geared to catering to the needs of the market, Davis opens up a broader reading of his work that reveals much about cultural and societal attitudes, particularly those related to the perception of women in the male-dominated Edo society.”

Japanese Studies

"Davis uses Utamaro’s artwork as a doorway to explore many different entangled cultural systems at once... Even thoughI felt familiar with ukiyo-e going into this book, I learned an immense amount about Edo culture and its means of production while reading it. Those who feel ready to learn about the horrors of exploitation, particularly of women, will find a brilliant text."

International Examiner

Table of Contents

Introduction – Utamaro, Ukiyo-e and the City of Prints

1. Constructing the Artist Known as Utamaro

2. ‘Pictures of Beauties’ and Other Social Physiognomies

3. Behind the Brocade and Other Yoshiwara Illusions

4. Utamaro and the Feminine Spectacle

5. Making History into the Pageant of the Floating World


Works Cited


List of Illustrations


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