Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty
256pp. February 2008
Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty
Author: Davis, Julie Nelson;
One of the most influential artists working in the genre of ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") in late-eighteenth-century Japan, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?–1806) was widely appreciated for his prints of beautiful women. In images showing courtesans, geisha, housewives, and others, Utamaro made the practice of distinguishing social types into a connoisseurial art. In 1804, at the height of his success, Utamaro, along with several colleagues, was manacled and put under house arrest for fifty days for making prints of the military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi enjoying the pleasures of the "floating world." The event put into stark relief the challenge that popular representation posed to political authority and, according to some sources, may have precipitated Utamaro’s sudden decline.

In this book Julie Nelson Davis makes a close study of selected print sets, and by drawing on a wide range of period sources reinterprets Utamaro in the context of his times. Reconstructing the place of the ukiyo-e artist within the world of the commercial print market, she demonstrates how Utamaro’s images participated in the economies of entertainment and desire in the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo).

Offering a new approach to issues of the status of the artist and the construction of identity, gender, sexuality, and celebrity in the Edo period, Utamaro and the Spectacle of Beauty is a significant contribution to the field and a key work for readers interested in Japanese art and culture.

114 illus., 66 in color

For sale only in the U.S., its dependencies, Canada, and Mexico

"[Davis’ study] has significantly raised the bar. [It] is meticulously researched and documented and has a clear and well-framed thesis and approach. . . . An important work that will be required reading for anyone working on or interested in ukiyo-e, the publishing industry, and/or gender and the sex trade in late eighteenth-century Japan. Its strong thesis invites engagement with the author’s argument, the bibliography is extensive and up-to-date, and the illustrations ample enough to allow the reader the chance to study an important part of the Utamaro corpus." —caa.reviews (14 April 2009)

"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 readers and scholars alike will appreciate her careful analyses of the multi-layered visual and verbal meanings of Utramaro’s familiar print series. . . . She brings to her work a probing critical distance rather than the adulation of so many previous biographic studies." —Print Quarterly (26, 2009)

"By offering this 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.’ . . . [T]his volume, with its full-color illustrations from all the Utamaro series, its art paper and its elegant binding is one of the best." —Japan Times (March 23, 2008) (Read the full review here.)

Author: Davis, Julie Nelson;
Julie Nelson Davis is assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.