Kitagawa Utamaro depicted women so well, it was said, because he knew them so well. He was a scholar, a connoisseur and, of course, a lover of women.
That’s how the Japanese artist (1753-1806) was marketed to potential buyers of his work, both in his time and place and then a century later in Paris. That city is where the three large paintings in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered” were probably sold to three buyers. They haven’t been exhibited together since 1879.
Now “Moon at Shinagawa,” “Fukagawa in the Snow” and “Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara” have been reunited. “Snow” is the rediscovery. Its location was unknown between 1948 and 2014, when Japan’s Okada Museum of Art announced that it had acquired it.
The paintings are extraordinary, but they’re not all the exhibition offers. The artworks’ historical context is drawn in detail by James Ulak, the Freer and Sackler’s senior curator of Japanese art, and guest curator Julie Nelson Davis, a University of Pennsylvania professor of art history.
Yet “Inventing Utamaro” leaves many mysteries unresolved, including the riddle of the artist’s identity. Almost nothing is known about his life other than the legend of his expertise with the female form and psyche. A noted film about him, Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1946 “Five Women Around Utamaro,” is almost all fiction.
The paintings show groups of elegant women, sumptuously attired and posed in teahouses, framed by iconic nature: snow, moon and flower, the three symbols of fleeting beauty extolled in a 9th-century Chinese poem. The moon glimmers over Edo (now Tokyo) bay in “Shinagawa”; snow nestles on tree branches in the courtyard of “Fukagawa”; and cherry blossoms abound outside the two-tiered pavilion in “Yoshiwara.”
The paintings depict “ukiyo,” the “floating world” of ephemeral pleasures. Yet one delight goes unillustrated: sex. Yoshiwara was Edo’s licensed brothel district; Shinagawa and Fukagawa, stops on the way out of town, had teahouses where more than tea was served. That these were not really such glamorous places is revealed in the show’s final gallery, which acknowledges Yoshiwara’s grim reality.
There are almost no men in the paintings, which are in the style known as ukiyo-e. (“E” means “picture.”) A few small boys appear, and in “Shinagawa” a male presence broods, just a shadow behind a curtain. In reality, of course, such places would have not existed if not for men. But for such depictions of brothels and courtesans, men were the audience, not the subject. (Also available were explicitly erotic prints, a few mild examples of which are shown here.)
Ukiyo-e portrays women who were idealized in many ways, and Utamaro devised much of the paradigm. He’s known for improbably willowy subjects, with oblong heads and elongated necks. Included in the show is a 1774 Dutch anatomy book that influenced Japanese artists in an era when their country was officially closed to the West. It turns out that the perfect Japanese beauty had some European DNA.
Utamaro’s depictions weren’t really a science project, but they were often considered of a piece with his catalogues of flowers, insects and shells, a few of which are displayed here. Transplanted to Europe, his art helped inspire the impressionists, art nouveau and — another artist well represented in the Freer — James Whistler.
Many ukiyo-e works went to Europe in the late 19th century because they were being sold off by Buddhist temples, then being suppressed by the Japanese government. The Parisian vogue for ukiyo-e probably saved some pieces from being destroyed by Tokyo’s cataclysmic 1923 fire or by bombings during World War II.
After Utamaro’s time, picturesque landscapes became a major focus of such noted ukiyo-e artists as Katsushika Hokusai (some of whose work is in this show). But these paintings focus on the women, interposing nature around them. This is sometimes done slyly. While “Shinagawa” features an actual view as its backdrop, the other two pictures place artistic depictions of scenery at the rear of the composition: a scroll painting of Mount Fuji in “Fukagawa,” a screen painting of a garden in “Yoshiwara.”
In this show, “Moon at Shinagawa” hangs at the center. It’s arguably the best of the three, and certainly the least busy. There are fewer figures and a sense of openness the others lack. Where “Yoshiwara” is overloaded with gold leaf, “Shinagawa’s” gilt is subtly dabbed in the sky.
“Shinagawa” also happens to be the one that lives in Washington. It was bought by Charles Lang Freer in 1903 and, under the terms of his bequest, cannot travel. “Yoshiwara” (which belongs to Connecticut’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art) and “Fukagawa” will be exhibited elsewhere.
The paintings were last shown together at a temple in Tochigi, a city northeast of Tokyo that was home to Zenno Ihei, the wealthy merchant who probably commissioned them. In each picture, a woman wears a garment that includes the Zenno clan’s crest, which Ulak calls “a fascinating little clue.”
What’s missing from all three paintings is Utamaro’s signature. They were likely produced by a workshop, not a single artist, and “are attributed to Utamaro on the basis of style,” Davis explains.
In these three masterworks, the hand of the master cannot be definitively certified. It’s another way “the man who loved women” remains elusive.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. 202-357-3200. asia.si.edu.
Dates: Through July 9.