Kitagawa Utamaro
The Interesting Type
c. 1782-1793

Signed: Sōmi Utamaro ga; Publisher’s logo (Tsutaya Jūsaburō); censor’s seal: kiwame; ōban, 37.2 x 24.0 cm; nishiki-e with shōmenzuri (on mirror) and white mica ground (shirokira)

From “Ten Types of Female Physiognomy” Surprised, a young woman is viewing her blackened teeth in a mirror; they were a sign of a married woman in feudal Japan. Utamaro designed ten half portraits in this series showing women with different physiognomic characteristics. They were some of Utamaro’s first half portraits and some of the earliest woodblock prints with a mica ground. Between 1801 and 1804 he created a second series with a similar title, but without the artistic quality of these early prints.

Tadamasa Hayashi; Georg Oeder, Düsseldorf (1944), F. Tikotin, La Tour de Peilz (March 1964)
Riese Collection #65

It was widely believed in the Edo period that a person’s character, affections, and fortune could be determined by an examination of their facial structures, expressions, and gestures. People who pursued this form of psychology and practiced it professionally were known as ninsōmi, or “physiognomists”. With their neat tables and large magnifying glass they were a common sight in urban areas.

Early in the 1790s, as early as 1791 or 1792 if we accept the date the Japanese usually give to the set, Utamaro, then best known for his poetry albums The Silver World, the Insect Book, the Shell Book decided that just as there was more to print design than the sweeping lines and balanced compositions of an artist like Kiyonaga, there was more to women than kimono patterns and a pretty face. Just what this was he was determined to express. Instead of courtesans he decided to portray ordinary women in their daily life, and the title of the series could well be translated as “Ten Physiognomic Studies of Married Women”. By calling himself a physiognomist, Utamaro meant to call attention to the fact that he was portraying personalities, not simply beauties, and on the first prints of the set he named the type of woman he was attempting to portray. As we look at the print we are struck by the similarity of the facial types, but to Utamaro physiognomy was not limited to facial structure as it was to European students of Lavater in the same period. To Utamaro it was the gesture, the pose, the revealing pastime, that revealed, finally, a mood, which conveyed a personality more vividly than words could.

In this picture the woman has just applied blackening to her teeth, and is looking at them to see if it is even, in a mirror. Blackening, onohaguro, was a fluid made by oxidizing iron in vinegar. In the Edo period it was used cosmetically, but only by married women. According to one miscellany of the time this was because black was the colour of permanence and showed that the love between husband and wife would not change. Since blackening was a liquid, it was usually applied over a basin, and the woman in the picture is kneeling/leaning forward, and supporting herself with her left hand on the floor beside the basin while she holds the mirror up to her view with the right.
This print, which is quietly justly considered one of Utamaro’s masterpieces, is printed with great delicacy. The kimono seems intentionally mottled as though the girl may have recently come from the bath, and there is a faint rose flush around her eyes. She does indeed seem “loveable”.

Reproduced in: Ingelheim catalogue, no. 58.
Riese, Asiatische Studien, 1972, p. 95, no. 18.
Ukiyo-e Taipei, Vol. 5, no. 18 (colour).
Other impressions have been reproduced too frequently to describe.