UTAMARO AND THE SPECTACLE OF BEAUTY by Julie Nelson Davis. London: Reaktion Books, 2008, 269 pp., 114 illustrations, 66 color plates. £35 (cloth)

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) is widely known as one of the most creative and influential artists of the ukiyo-e, those "pictures of the floating world" that delineated, in particular, the good looks of the women of Edo. These have, in fact, been called among the most accomplished and eloquent expressions of feminine beauty in Japanese art.

Along with this judgment is the assumption that Utamaro was there, picturing what he saw. His first foreign fan, Edmond de Goncourt, thought so. He believed that the artist spent his life amid the women he drew, that these were actually portraits of real people

But, as Julie Davis demonstrates in this closely reasoned study of the artist and his society, "they are a fictionalized view of an imagined world of pleasure, complicit in all that it entailed." There is enough evidence to establish that there really was an Utamaro, but the persona that has accrued about the name ought be more closely examined.