Like Harunobu Suzuki very little is known about the life of Utamaro, although there is a great deal of conjecture. Born in a local province in 1753, Utamaro went to Edo(Tokyo) around 1775 where he became a pupil of Toriyama Sekien, making his debut in the Ukiyo-e world under the pseudonym Toyoaki Kitagawa. In 1781 he changed his pseudonym to Kitagawa Utamaro and at the same time his talent was noticed by the Ukiyo-e publisher Tsuta-ya Juzaburo, who became his patron. This patronage was a critical factor underlying Utamaro's subsequent success.
Considered by many to be the greatest of the Ukiyo-e artists, Utamaro's Okubi-e ("large head" close-up) portraits of beautiful women marked an epoch in the evolution of bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). Rather than depicting a feminine atmosphere typified by clothing or surroundings, however, Utamaro tried to reproduce the beauty emphasis of the whiteness, softness and smoothness of female skin.
Utamaro continued to produce bijin-ga until his death in 1806. He lived in misery in his later years, however, after the sale of prints he published in 1804 was prohibited by the Bakufu (central feudal goverment) and he himself was punished by being placed in handcuffs for fifty days. This incident broke his spirit and health and he died shortly afterwards.