Along with his contemporary Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro was one of the best-known artists of the Ukiyo-e ('Floating World') style, a genre of woodblock painting that flourished in Japan from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Their work, in the form of affordable colour prints, was ubiquitous throughout Japan, and both artists were household names within their lifetimes. Utamaro was most celebrated for his depictions of women, and he was the key figure in the development shunga, a genre of sexually explicit art. While more than 2,000 of Utamaro's woodblock prints survive, original paintings are extremely rare – many were destroyed during the regular fires and disasters that afflicted the city of Edo. Only around 40 original paintings are thought to be extant, many of which are only known through photographs in old publications. Courtesan Reading a Letter is a new discovery. Its existence has never been recorded or published, making its acquisition a key opportunity to gain new insights into Utamaro's work. It depicts a courtesan in Yoshiwara, a government-licensed prostitution quarter on the northern edge of the city of Edo. The courtesan is shown wearing sumptuous robes and hair ornaments, signs of her high status, while she stands reading a letter. The letter's contents are illegible, leaving the viewer to guess at its contents and the identity of its author.

This work was acquired with assistance from the Wolfson Foundation.

Provenance

Mallams, Cheltenham, 2011 where bought by vendors. Art Loss Register and Met Police London Stolen Arts Database have both been searched.


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