Biographical details for Utamaro are extremely limited, and each reference gives a substantially different account.
Various accounts claim that he was born in either Edo (present-day Tokyo), Kyoto, or Osaka (the three main cities of Japan), or a provincial town (no one is sure exactly which one) in around 1753; the exact date is also uncertain. Another long-standing tradition has is that he was born in Yoshiwara, the courtesan district of Edo, the son of a tea-house owner, but there is no evidence of this. His original name was Kitagawa Ichitarō.
It is generally agreed that he became a pupil of the painter Toriyama Sekien while he was still a child, and there are many authorities who believe that Utamaro was his son as well. He lived in Sekien's house while he was growing up, and the relationship continued until Sekien's death in 1788.
Sekien was originally trained in the aristocratic Kanō school of painting, but in middle age he started to lean toward the popular (or ukiyo-e) school. Sekien is known to have had a number of other pupils, none of any distinction.
Utamaro, in common with other Japanese of the time, changed his name as he became mature, and also took the name Ichitarō Yusuke as he became older. He apparently also married, although little is known about his wife, and he apparently had no children.
His first major professional artistic work, at about the age of 22, in 1775, seems to have been the cover for a Kabuki playbook, under the gō of Toyoaki. He then produced a number of actor and warrior prints, along with theatre programmes, and other such material. From the spring of 1781, he switched his gō to Utamaro, and started painting and designing fairly forgettable woodblock prints of women.
At some point in the middle 1780s, probably 1783, he went to live with the young rising publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō, with whom he apparently lived for about 5 years. He seems to have become a principal artist for the Tsutaya firm. His output of prints for the next few years was sporadic, as he produced mostly illustrations for books of kyoka, literally 'crazy verse', a parody of the classical waka form. He seems to have produced nothing at all that has survived in the period 1790-1792.
In about 1791 Utamaro gave up designing prints for books and concentrated on making half-length single portraits of women, rather than the prints of women in groups favoured by other ukiyo-e artists. In 1793 he achieved recognition as an artist, and his semi-exclusive arrangement with the publisher Tsutaya Jūzaburō was terminated. He then went on to produce a number of very famous series, all featuring women of the Yoshiwara district.
Over the years, he also occupied himself with a number of volumes of nature studies and shunga, or erotica. In 1797, Tsutaya Jūzaburō died, and Utamaro apparently was very upset by the loss of his long-time friend and supporter. Some commentators feel that his work after this never reached the heights it did before.
In 1804, at the height of his success, he ran into legal trouble by publishing prints related to a banned historical novel. The prints, entitled Hideyoshi and his 5 Concubines, depicted the military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi's wife and concubines; Consequently, he was accused of insulting Hideyoshi's dignity. He was sentenced to be handcuffed for 50 days (some accounts say he was briefly imprisoned). According to some sources, the experience crushed him emotionally and ended his career as an artist.
He died two years later, on the 20th day of the 9th month, 1806 (lunar calendar), aged about fifty-three, in Edo.