Kitagawa Utamaro
Mashiba Hisayoshi and his Favourite Page

Signed: Utamaro hitsu; Publisher’s logo: mori(Moriya Jihei); censor’s seal: kiwame; ōban, 37.2 x 25.3 cm; nishiki-e

General Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1535–1598) receives his favourite page Ishida Mitsunari. A member of his entourage, behind him, is sticking out his tongue in disgust, and a servant is making a dismissive gesture. The general’s armour with the aoi crest of the Tokugawa is behind him on the table. In the wake of this satire with sexual allusions that were considered to be treasonous, Utamaro was arrested in 1804 and then severely punished.

Tadamasa Hayashi; John Mellor (Sotheby’s, London, July 1963)

This may be one of the prints for which Utamaro was imprisoned in 1804. From a very early date, perhaps as early as the 17th century, the Tokugawa shogunate forbade the representation of recent historical events in woodblock prints, theatre, or popular literature. This stricture was frequently circumvened by the simple contrivance of transposing the names of historical figures, and these violations of the spirit of the law were overlooked when they caused no threat to the government. In designing this print, which in its first state bears the name Mashiba Hisayoshi, a transparent alteration of the name of the 16th century general Hashiba Hideyoshi, Utamaro was simply following an accepted tradition. After the failure of the Kansei Reforms of the 1790s and the disgrace and dismissal of the chancellor Matsudaira Sadanobu, there may have been a popular outcry against the dissipation of the reigning shōgun Tokugawa Ienari. The direct sexuality in this print: The general propositioning his page, the grimace of his attendant, and the knowing look on the face of the woman behind, all coupled with the Tokugawa crest of aoi leaves/leering warrior’s robe, may have fed this unrest. At any rate it seems to have disconcerted the government, because Utamaro was fined, imprisoned, and confined to his quarters in the summer of 1804, for designing this print, it would seem, and a triptych of Hideyoshi on an outing in Kyōto.