Kitagawa Utamaro (1754 – 1806) is amongst the most highly-regarded Japanese artists and printmakers. On display is his work The Habit of Bashfulness (Omohayuki Kuse), an ukiyo-e woodblock print from the series Seven Bad Habits (Nakute nana kuse). This series portrays women’s gestures that were considered discourteous during that period, such as gossiping and playing with hair, while The Habit of Bashfulness depicts a shy girl laughing.
Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese art that thrived from the 17th to 19th centuries. The term “ukiyo“, which translates to “floating world”, refers to the transient nature of human existence in contrast to the spiritual realm of the afterlife, and thereby emphasises the importance of enjoying oneself in the present life. Ukiyo-e, meaning “pictures of the floating world”, came to encompass woodblock prints and paintings depicting courtesans, kabuki actors and their stage performances, and later landscapes and mythological subjects. Kitagawa Utamaro mastered the art of ukiyo-e prints, particularly Ōkubi-e, which are portrait prints that focus on the head or upper torso of the figure. He specialised in painting female figures in a style known as Bijin-ga (Pictures of beautiful women). Utamaro observed both courtesans and kabuki actors in the pleasure districts such as the Yoshiwara, sympathising with their lives and capturing their elegance in his prints.
Ukiyo-e prints are distinct in Japanese art, promoting extravagance and hedonism in contrast to traditional Japanese art, which advocates simplicity and subdued use of colour. The commercial prosperity of the Edo period (1603-1868) contributed to the development of ukiyo-e prints. Townspeople during the Edo period played a significant role in the flourishing of ukiyo-e. They were merchants with wealth but occupied a low rung of the social hierarchy compared to the samurai at the top. They spent their money on entertainment in the pleasure districts, which became one of the most popular themes depicted in ukiyo-e prints.