A central figure in the literary and artistic world of Edo (now Tokyo), Kitagawa Utamaro became one of the best-known practitioners of 'ukiyo-e' (“pictures of the floating world”). In the Yoshiwara, the government-licensed pleasure district on the outskirts of Edo, art and life were closely intertwined. The 'ukiyo-e' print played an important part in publicizing the pleasures of the district and promoting the cult of the courtesan.
Dissatisfied with the existing styles of depicting female beauty, Utamaro adopted the Katsukawa school’s large-head depictions of actors. His masterpieces are half-length and bust-length portraits of beautiful women (bijinga), which he began to produce in the 1790s. Although the high-ranking courtesans were his favorite subjects, he also depicted common street prostitutes, teahouse waitresses, geisha, and housewives.
Utamaro was known for his inventiveness in arranging his figures within the confines of the paper. His subject here, Ichikawa, a noted beauty, was an "ōrian," the highest rank of courtesan. The whiteness of her complexion, her simple features, and elaborate coiffure with comb and pins are set off by the mica background—powdered mica dusted onto the sized sheet—that glistens around her. As Ichikawa raises her arm to show off the bold wagon wheel pattern of her kimono, the curved opening of her underrobe displays her elongated neck, including the tantalizing edges of the nape, considered an area of great beauty.
Ichikawa’s two child attendants, Mitsumo and Tamamo, are not depicted, but their names are inscribed at the upper right along with that of the courtesan and her house. The Matsuba-ya (“Pine Needle House”) was one of the most famous brothels in the Yoshiwara.