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The Floating World: Japanese Color Woodcuts by Kitagawa Utamaro

Collection History

These images were selected from the Library’s important collection of Japanese prints of the ukiyo-e school, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” is the term used for prints and paintings that portray everyday domestic activities, famous beauties, courtesans, actors, and other scenes and portraits of ordinary life during the Tokugawa Shogunate of the Edo period (1615-1868).

The Library’s collection originated in a 1901 gift of 1,763 ukiyo-e prints from Charles Stewart Smith, a New Yorker who had made his fortune in dry goods and textiles. Smith had obtained the prints during an 1892 trip to the Far East from author and collector Captain Frank Brinkley, an English journalist, mathematician, and military adviser living in Japan. Brinkley favored the ukiyo-e subgenre known as bijin-ga, or “pictures of beautiful women,” and Smith’s gift to the Library reflects Brinkley’s predilection. Among the most important prints in the collection were the 123 woodcuts by the ukiyo-e master Utamaro, many in extraordinary condition with fresh color. The Utamaro holdings were further enriched by a major purchase in 1949 of an additional seven superb prints from the Louis V. Ledoux collection.


Ukiyo-e prints recorded the celebrated courtesans of the Yoshiwara district, actors performing at the Kabuki theater, sumo wrestlers, genteel domestic scenes, picnic outings in the country, and tourists visiting scenic sites. Utamaro specialized in depicting women: well-known courtesans, celebrated beauties of the day, and unknown, ordinary women engaged in their daily activities. The audience for these eroticized and idealized portraits was a rising urban middle class, including those from Edo (now Tokyo), with money to spend on luxuries, like these works of art, which captured the transitory pleasures of life.

Related Resources

Asano, Shugo and Timothy Clark. The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro. (1995)

NYPL. Catalogue of the Work of Kitagawa Utamaro, 1753-1806, in the Collections of The New York Public Library. Introd. by Harold G. Henderson. Catalogue by Massey Trotter. (1950)


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