In Edo-period Japan, trade was limited to exchange with the Chinese and the Dutch. Materials and ideas that came in included European concepts of scientific thinking. In Japan, the orderly categorization of nature through such activities as collecting seashells or raising exotic plants became marks of sophistication. Utamaro’s gorgeous illustrations for books of shells and insects signified his membership in this elite world.
The artist’s naturalist gaze was extended to beautiful women. In prints and books published by Tsutaya Jūzaburō, Utamaro categorized women across society, from high-ranking courtesans to wet nurses and waitresses. For the rest of his career, Utamaro was promoted as a connoisseur of this subject, helping him become the late eighteenth century’s leading depicter of “beauties.”
While earlier ukiyo-e artists rendered women as delicate and petite, in the early 1780s, Torii Kiyonaga transformed the feminine ideal into a more statuesque form. Perhaps in response to European ideas about the body, he shifted figural proportions to a new, taller ratio. This became the template for Utamaro and later artists.