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Utamaro Kitagawa

The Awabi Fishers


Utamaro Kitagawa
Kawagoe (?), Japan, early 1750s – Edo (now Tokyo) 1806


The Awabi Fishers


About 1798, late edition




39 x 26.2 cm


David R. Morrice Bequest, inv. Gr.1981.48a


Graphic Arts

Bijin, or beautiful women, are one of the many subject matters of Japanese painting, especially in the genre of ukiyo-e painting and woodblock prints. Hishikawa Moronobu (?-1694) established this subject matter using the print medium, in addition to painting, in the mid-seventeenth century. In the early Edo period, courtesans in the pleasure district were mainly depicted, but later more “ordinary” women became the primary models for the artists. Prints of bijin by Kitagawa Utamaro (1756-1806) were particularly popular for their elegant yet voluptuous rendering of female beauty. This triptych features traditional fisherwomen from the coastal regions diving semi-nude into the sea in search of abalone. A constant source of fascination for Westerners, these images flooded Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. Made for the general public, they catered to the widespread demand for representations of the nude and feminine beauty. Far from being only a convenient ethnographic subject, these fisherwomen turned into a marine version of courtesans in the collective imagination, sensual bodies to be consumed by the male gaze in Japan and elsewhere.

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