Kitagawa Utamaro
Three Beauties: A Seller of Tea Whisks, a Seller of Charcoal and a Street Singer
c. 1792

Signed: Utamaro ga; Publisher’s logo (Tsuruya Ki’emon); ōban, 36.9 x 25.0 cm; nishiki-e with karazuri and shōmenzuri and grey nica ground (nezumikira); in modern times skilfully hand-coloured and “revamped”

From “Geisha Section of the Yoshiwara Niwaka Festival of the Green Houses” This series presents groups of geisha at the Niwaka Festival in Yoshiwara. Each print shows three half-portraits arranged like a Buddhist triad against a background to which a counterfeiter later applied dark grey mica ground in the early 20th century. The geisha with fans is the saiman (street singer), the woman in black is the charcoal vendor (kuroki-uri), in the back with a gauze headdress and a gourd is a tea brush vendor.

Carl Schraubstadter; Renate Berk; F. Tikotin, La Tour de Peilz (December 1965)

Yoshida considers the four prints of half-length portraits of geisha in the annual Niwaka festival in the Yoshiwara to be among Utamaro’s earliest mica ground portraits. If his suggestion of the early 1790s is a correct date for these prints, they are probably the earliest dark mica ground portraits known, easily predating the Sharaku portraits of 5/1794 and the Shun’ei aiban portraits which seemed to have appeared earlier that year. The woman with the fan and the short baton with jingling rings is the saiman or itinerant street singer. The woman in black with the crest which reads Tetsu is meant to be a charcoal seller, and the taller woman with the gauze headdress, and the clapper made from a hollow gourd is the seller of tea whisks. The three may have appeared together or separately in the impromptu skits that were a part of the Niwaka festival during the 8th month in the Yoshiwara.

During the 1920s, when the collection of Japanese prints was at its height in America, a group of extremely deceptive prints began appearing on the market. The prints themselves were genuine, but had been extensively and very skilfully hand-coloured to make them seem to be early, unfaded expressions, rather than the somewhat late and faded impressions they actually were. These “revamped” prints, as they were called, deceived some of the finest connoisseurs and most experienced dealers in Tōkyō, as well as the more or less sophisticated collectors abroad, and several reputations were affected. Finally the Japanese dealers’ association, recognising the damage that these “revamped” prints were causing, discovered the perpetrator of the fraud, and seems to have forced him to stop. From the thirties onwards as the interest in collecting Japanese prints waned, and as the prices paid for prints dropped, these elaborate deceptions were no longer very profitable and were seldom resorted to. Later writers were not even very sure what a “revamped” print looked like, but the word has hung over the ukiyo-e world like a cloud, haunting the connoisseurship of prints like a vengeful ghost. So much so, that some of the finest lacquer prints and some of the finest Harunobu prints in one of the most important public collections in America are still kept separately from the main collection in a box marked “fakes”.

The reason for mentioning the story is that this print seems without a doubt to be one of the “revamped” prints we have discussed. The dark mica is uncharacteristic in its colour and texture and has obviously been added at a later date, as often happened with prints of the 1790s. The unfaded blue and purple of the left kimono and fan, however, are a strange contrast to the faded blue, nearly a yellow of the woman’s sleeves and headdress. A close examination shows that the colour has been painstakingly added by hand in these areas, and light grey lines have been added in the hair of the two women at the left to make the fine lines seem unworn.

The print is so rare that a collector in the 1920s would never have seen another impression, and would have had nothing with which to compare it. Even now, only two other impressions seem to be known, one in the British Museum, the other one in the Scheiwe collection (not “revamped”) in Munster.

Reproduced in: Ingelheim catalogue, no. 58a.
Ukiyo-e Taikei, Vol. 5, no. 121.