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Triptych painting by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro reunited in Washington
Detail of Moon at Shinagawa (also known as Moonlight Revelry at Dozō Sagami) Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) Japan, Edo period, ca. 1788 Painting mounted on panel; color on paper Freer Gallery of Art Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.54.

WASHINGTON, DC.- Not seen together since 1879, the significant triptych painting by the legendary Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro has been reunited in “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery April 8, 2017–July 9, 2017. Depicting the themes of “snow,” “moon” and “flowers,” the large-scale painting group was last shown together in Japan in 1879 and later traveled to Paris in the 1880s where the ensemble was broken up and the paintings sold separately.

The exhibition showcases the “Moon at Shinagawa” from the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art along with “Fukagawa in the Snow” from the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, and “Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara” from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. The exhibition at the Sackler Gallery is the only location at which all three original pieces will be on view together due to loan restrictions.

The paintings may have been brought to Paris by art dealer Hayashi Tadamasa. Tadamasa established himself in Paris as the preeminent source for ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) in the wake of the Paris World’s Fair of 1878 and Japan’s opening to international trade. Painted in the Japanese ukiyo-e style, the works were created in Edo, present-day Tokyo. Traditionally, ukiyo-e depict the men and women from the pleasure quarter, promoting them as places of leisure and pleasure, the so-called “floating world” of diversions from the pressures of everyday life. The works were sold separately, one purchased by Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery of Art, in 1903, another acquired by a French collector and then ultimately purchased by the Wadsworth Athenaeum, and the third obtained by a private collector in Japan that was subsequently lost from view until recently purchased by the Okada Museum of Art.

This exhibition reunites these three important paintings and places them in the larger context of Japonisme (the influence of Japanese art on Western art), collecting and connoisseurship at the turn of the 20th century during the period of “discovery” of Utamaro and, by extension, ukiyo-e, by European and American collectors. The large scale of the three paintings makes them unusual in the tradition of ukiyo-e, more commonly experienced as smaller-sized block prints, paintings and illustrated books. Their history can be traced to an exhibition held Nov. 23, 1879, at the temple of Joganji in the Japanese city of Tochigi, to the northeast of Edo/Tokyo. Although no clear record of the triptych exists before this date, it has been established that they were created over a period of approximately 15 years—beginning in the late 1780s and concluding in the early 1800s—for Utamaro’s wealthy merchant client Zenno Ihei, an important figure in Tochigi.

The motifs of “snow,” “moon” and “flower” were standard subject matter within which an artist would explore variations on these three classical Japanese themes. Utamaro, similar to many ukiyo-e artists, explored these themes with stylized figures of beautiful women. The triptych is unsigned, with the attribution to Utamaro based on style and historical record. The exhibition will include a number of additional prints and illustrated books that demonstrate how ukiyo-e artists working within studios frequently reused compositions and themes throughout various works.

Although little is known about Utamaro himself (1753–1806), he is considered one of the greatest Japanese print designer and painting artists of the ukiyo-e genre. Utamaro began his study of painting in the studio of Toriyama Sekien at an early age. Sekien was a rather conservative artist that worked in the Kano style, but he also participated in poetry circles and had influential patrons. Through Sekien, Utamaro met the publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō, and this transformed his career and his subject matter. Jūzaburō had a successful publishing business producing guides to the pleasure quarters, and Utamaro is especially known for his masterfully composed portraits of sensuous female beauties from those districts and beyond. Utamaro’s career and success as an artist was built upon a carefully crafted persona of a connoisseur of female beauty that was carried throughout his career.

The triptych will also be the focus of exhibitions on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Jan. 7, 2017, through March 26, 2017, and the Okada Museum of Art. Each of the three museums is developing its own exhibition related to these paintings. “Moon at Shinagawa” will be shown only at the Freer and Sackler due to loan restrictions; a facsimile of this painting will be exhibited at the other two museums. The exhibition is curated by the Freer and Sackler’s James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art, and guest curator Julie Nelson Davis, professor of history of art at the University of Pennsylvania.

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