Kitagawa Utamaro
Beautiful Tomimoto Toyohina
c. 1793

Signed: Utamaro hitsu; Publisher’s logo (Tsutaya Jūsaburō); censor’s seal: kiwame; hanshin-e, ōban, 37.2 x 24.0 cm; nishiki-e with karazuri on surimono and white mica ground (shirokira)

From “Famous Beauties of Edo” Among Utamaro’s best works is a group of three half-portraits of the most celebrated beauties of his time. Two of the bijin, Okita and Ohisa, were tea-house girls. Toyohina, who is shown here, was presumably a geisha in Yoshiwara. The surimono which is printed in an intriguing green with the blind pressing with chrysanthemums holds her attention. Surimono in vertical formats were often used to announce musical performances, and Toyohina was a musician herself.

Gillot; M. Densemore, Paris; Dorothy Bess, Ashville, N.C.; N. Chaikin; Anthony d’Offay, London (August 1968)
Riese Collection #66

One of the pinnacles of Utamaro’s career as a print designer is a group of three half-length portraits of the three most celebrated beauties of his day. Two of the beauties, Okita and Ohisa, were waitresses at teahouses. The third, Toyohina, seems to have been a geisha employed at the Tamamuraya, a house in the Yoshiwara. Apparently she studied music with the famous chanter Tomimoto Buzendayū and received from him her full name and permission to wear the primrose crest sakurasō of the Tomimoto family.

Previous descriptions of this print have always described Toyohina as reading a letter. In fact, she is holding a sheet of paper which as been folded in half lengthwise and has a design of chrysanthemums on its upper surface. Letters were often written on a sheet of heavy hōsho paper folded in this way, and it could be imagined that she is holding a sheet of decorated letter paper. However, the paper has always been folded into thirds, one fold by Toyohina’s left hand, the other clearly embossed across the sheet beside the second group of flowers. If this was a letter, it would be inscribed. If it was a sheet of decorated paper she was considering writing on herself, it would not already have been folded into thirds. It seems clear that she is actually holding a long printed surimono. Early surimono were printed on just such a large piece of paper and folded in half so that the picture was on one side and the printed message, often an invitation or an announcement, was on the other. The sheet was then folded again into thirds with the picture outside and placed in a paper envelope to be addressed and delivered.

Many of the early long surimono announced musical performances and gave the names of the geisha and musicians who would perform. Since Toyohina was a celebrated geisha it is likely that she would receive announcements of her performances. The only difficulty with this proposal is that most long surimono that are dated to the earlier half of the decade. This print would seem to be evidence, therefore, either that surimono began to appear slightly earlier, or this group of prints somewhat later, than we have imagined hitherto.

Impressions of the print are known with and without mica, with and without the geisha’s name stamped over the mica in the upper left, and with different combinations of colour on Toyohina’s kimono and obi. The print is celebrated and has been frequently reproduced.

Reproduced in: Vignier and Inada, Utamaro, no. 69, pl. 31.
Anthony d’Offay, Actors and courtesans: The Japanese Print 1770-1800, no. 15 (reproduced on cover in colour).
Riese, Asiatische Studien, 1972, p. 96, no. 19 (colour).
Ukiyo-e Taikei, Vol. 5, no. 128.