Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820)
Kitao Shigemasa was the son of an Edo publisher and bookseller. He may have studied with Nishimura Shigenaga (c. 1697-1756), although
other artists may have influenced his style, including Harunobu. Shigemasa's pupils included some important
figures of the age, such as Kitao Masanobu (Santô Kyôden, 1761-1816), Kitao Masayoshi (1764-1824), and Kubô Shunman
(1757-1820). He may also have taught, in some limited or unofficial capacity, Utamaro
Shigemasa was certainly one of the leading print designers of his time, yet his works are less familiar than they deserve to be, given
their obvious charm and finely balanced compositions, often of a notable simplicity. A large percentage of Shigemasa's surviving works
are in album and book format, while many of his single-sheet prints are unsigned. He also collaborated with other ukiyo-e artists, among
them Shunshô,including the well-known chûban format series Kaiko yashinaigusa ("The
Cultivation of Silkworms"), circa 1772.
Among Shigemasa's masterpieces are a number of full-length portraits of geisha (see the illustration on the right). This ôban-format
print depicts two geisha from Fukagawa ("Deep River"), an area outside the immediate jurisdiction of Edo city magistrates southeast
of the Sumida River. Fukagawa was a very popular, unlicensed pleasure district, the best of those in competition with the government-sanctioned
and more expensive Yoshiwara.
Fukagawa courtesans worked under yobidashi (a "summoning" arrangement) whereby they were sent to service their customers at
restaurants, teahouses, and inns near the river. They were known for their own brand of style and sophistication, and for the most part they
did not follow the complicated protocols of their high-ranking Yoshiwara sisters. Fukagawa geisha, such as the two portrayed by Shigemasa, were
also known as Tatsumi geisha, considered especially seductive and accomplished in the arts of dance, musicianship, and conversation. They
typically wore understated kimono and usually dispensed with tabi (socks), going barefoot instead, as in Shigemasa's print. This design is
from the series Toto no bijin no zu ("Pictures of Beauties from the East"), circa late 1770s. It is unsigned, as are so many of
the prints attributed to Shigemasa, but the style is distinctive and entirely consistent with the artist's signed works, so there is little
doubt as to its designer. Less than a decade after the death of Harunobu, the figure and format size had increased substantially, signaling a
new aesthetic in the conception of beauty and style for bijinga (prints of beautiful women; see also the discussion on Koryûsai).
Shigemasa's women have an restrained allure that places them among the masterpieces of ukiyo-e portrait prints. © 2001 by John Fiorillo
- Gentles, M.: The Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints: Volume II. Art Institute of Chicago, 1965, pp. 275-292.