Bijin-ga (Japanese: 美人画, "paintings of beautiful people," the term bijin (美人) of Chinese etymology, meaning morphologically "beautiful person," but applying primarily to women), constitute one of the major genres of Japanese ukiyo-e painting and printmaking.
Place of bijin-ga in the culture of the Edo period
They are often representations of courtesans, sometimes famous courtesans who are identified by name and celebrated for their beauty.
Along with portraits of kabuki actors, bijin-ga are one of the major subjects of ukiyo-e. In the case of the portraits of kabuki actors (yakusha-e), it was, somewhat like the theater or opera "programs" we see today, to commemorate not only a particular actor in a play, but also sometimes a particular performance of that play.
In the case of the portraits of courtesans or beautiful famous women, it was to allow the middle class that was then developing in Japan to have an image of one of these beauties that they were very unlikely to ever be able to see. In Utamaro's time, it was common for all beautiful women to be named on the prints that depicted them. But the censorship edicts went so far as to forbid the inclusion of their names, with the sole exception of the courtesans of the Yoshiwara. This gave rise to a new intellectual game for artists such as Utamaro, who continued to include the name of the woman concerned... in the form of a rebus. But the censor reacted as early as the 8th month of 1796, banning such rebuses.
The important artists known for their bijin-ga include almost all the great names of ukiyo-e, from Moronobu to Yoshitoshi, including Kaigetsudo, Sukenobu, Harunobu, Kiyonaga, Utamaro, Eishi, Hokusai, Hiroshige, and many others.
It is almost systematically that the artists of ukiyo-e turned to bijin-ga, with the exception of artists focused only on kabuki, as was Sharaku.
The genre continued into the 20th century as part of the shin-hanga ukiyo-e revival movement, with artists like Hirano Hakuhō.
Some famous bijin-ga models
Some of Utamaro's favorite models have remained famous bijin.
Indeed, Utamaro prided himself on capturing the psychological truth of his models better than any other Japanese painter, which is recurrent in his work.
This is particularly true of Naniwaya Okita, the courtesan Hanaōgi, belonging to the house of Ōgiya, or Tomimoto Toyohina or Takashima Ohisa.