The technique of engraving used for the multicolor prints of the floating world or ukiyo-e was developed for over a century. The original drawing was glued to a wood piece that was carved and black inked. Paper copies are in turn glued on wooden blocks which are recessed to define the surface to be inked with a predetermined color. Wedges define a sharp position of the blocks during the subsequent color inkings. About 300 copies could be printed before a significant wear of the woods.
Ukiyo-e is a bourgeois art that develops along with the social changes of the Edo period. The aristocrats do not like these multiple images that often honor illicit activities and the censorship is becoming increasingly severe.
The biography of the artists is not well known because of their plebeian origin and of the risk brought by the censorship. They often change their pseudonym and their real name is usually not identified. Tsutaya is not a personal name but the sign of the Ivy Shop. It however refers to a single publisher, Jūzaburō, who died in 1797 of our calendar.
Utamaro is a friend of Tsutaya with whom he resides. His artistic contribution is greatly innovative. He draws the head in close-up, which is shocking with reference to the Japanese artistic tradition, with a strong psychological intensity. He also innovates in the detailed drawing of the hair. His kira-e technique of embellishing the background with mica flakes provides a luxurious illusion that deliberately breaks with the traditional use of the ukiyo-e prints.
Sharaku is the pseudonym used by an unidentified artist who was perhaps Utamaro or Tsutaya for a series of portraits of actors of the Kabuki theater in which the female roles are played by men.
The sale held on June 21 in Paris (Drouot) by Beaussant Lefèvre in collaboration with Christie's enables to compare images by Utamaro and Sharaku in the standardized Oban tate-e format around 35 x 24 cm. Here is the link to the auction house's website.
Lot 6 is the portrait by Utamaro of a woman dreaming of love. This image from one of the most famous ukiyo-e series was printed by Tsutaya in 1793 or 1794 with the kira-e on a salmon-colored background. Lot 3 is the portrait of an actor in a female role executed by Sharaku in 1794 with a kira-e gray background and a collar also slightly improved by mica.
Utamaro : SOLD for € 750K including premium
Sharaku : SOLD for € 40K before fees