Kunisada (Japanese: 歌川 国貞; also known as Utagawa
Toyokuni III (三代歌川豊国); 1786 – 12 January 1865)
was the most popular, prolific and commercially successful designer of
ukiyo-e woodblock prints in 19th-century Japan. In his own time, his
reputation far exceeded that of his contemporaries, Hokusai, Hiroshige
1 Evaluation of
Kunisada in art history
3 Artistic activity
4 Reception and legacy
5 See also
6.1 Works cited
7 Further reading
8 External links
Kunisada in art history
At the end of the
Edo period (1603–1867), Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi and
Kunisada were the three best representatives of the Japanese color
Edo (capital city of Japan, now Tokyo). However, among
European and American collectors of Japanese prints, beginning in the
late 19th and early 20th century, all three of these artists were
actually regarded as rather inferior to the greats of classical
ukiyo-e, and therefore as having contributed considerably to the
downfall of their art. For this reason, some referred to their works
Beginning in the 1930s and 1970s, respectively, the works of Hiroshige
and Kuniyoshi were submitted to a re-evaluation, and these two are now
counted among the masters of their art. Thus, from
Kunisada alone was
withheld, for a long time, the acknowledgment which is due to him.
With a few exceptions, such as actor portraits (yakusha-e) and
portraits of beautiful women (bijin-ga), at the beginning of his
career, and some series of large-size actor head-portraits near the
end, it was thought that he had produced only inferior works. It was
not until the early 1990s, with the appearance of Jan van Doesburg's
overview of the artistic development of Kunisada, and Sebastian
Izzard's extensive study of his work, that this picture began to
Kunisada more clearly revealed as one of the "giants" of
the Japanese print that he was.
Although not much is known of the details of Kunisada's life, there
are some well-established records of particular events. He was born in
1786 in Honjo, an eastern district of Edo. His given name was Sumida
Shōgorō IX (角田庄五朗), and he was also called Sumida Shōzō
(角田庄蔵). A small licensed and hereditary ferry-boat service
belonged to his family, and the income derived from this business
provided a certain basic financial security. His father, who was an
amateur poet of some renown, died in the year after his birth. While
growing up, he developed an early talent for painting and drawing. His
early sketches at that time impressed Toyokuni, the great master of
Utagawa school and prominent designer of kabuki and actor-portrait
prints. In the year 1800 or shortly thereafter
Kunisada was accepted
by Toyokuni I as an apprentice in his workshop. In keeping with a
tradition of Japanese master-apprentice relations, he was then given
the official artist name of "KUNI-sada", the first character of which
was derived from the second part of the name "Toyo-KUNI".
His first known print dates to the year 1807; however this seems to
have been an exceptional design, and further full-sized prints appear
starting only in 1809–1810. As of 1808 he had already begun work as
an illustrator of e-hon (woodblock print illustrated books) and his
popularity rapidly increased. In 1809 he was referred to in
contemporary sources as the "star attraction" of the Utagawa school,
and soon thereafter was considered as at least equal to his teacher
Toyokuni in the area of book illustration. Kunisada's first actor
portraits appeared in either 1808 or 1809. It is known that his first
bijin-ga series and a series of pentaptychs of urban scenes of Edo,
appear simultaneously in 1809. By 1813 he had risen as a "star" in the
constellation of Edo's artistic world; a contemporary list of the most
important ukiyo-e artists places him in second place behind Toyokuni
Kunisada remained one of the "trendsetters" of the Japanese
woodblock print until his death in early 1865.
Beginning around 1810
Kunisada used the studio name "Gototei", which
refers cryptically to his father's ferry-boat business. Until 1842
this signature appeared on nearly all of his kabuki designs. Around
1825 the studio name "Kochoro" appeared, and was often used on prints
not related to kabuki. This name was derived from a combination of the
pseudonyms of master painter Hanabusa Itcho, and that of his successor
Hanabusa Ikkei, with whom
Kunisada had studied a new style of painting
around 1824–1825. In 1844, he finally adopted the name of his master
Toyokuni I, and for a brief time used the signature "
Toyokuni II". Starting in 1844-1845, all of his prints are signed
"Toyokuni", partially with the addition of other studio names as
prefixes, such as "Kochoro" and "Ichiyosai". Although Kunisada
referred to himself as "Toyokuni II", he must be regarded, however, as
"Toyokuni III". The question is unsettled as to why he intentionally
ignored Toyoshige, a pupil and son-in-law of Toyokuni I and who had
borne the name "Toyokuni", as legitimate head of the Utagawa school,
from 1825 until his own death in 1835.
The date of Kunisada's death was the 15th day of the 12th month of the
First Year of Genji. Most sources erroneously report this as having
been in the year 1864, though this date in the Japanese calendar
corresponds to the date January 12, 1865, in the Gregorian calendar.
Kunisada died in the same neighborhood in which he had been born.
Kunisada portrait of kabuki actor Kawarazaki Gonjuro I (1861)
Almost from the first day of his activity, and even at the time of his
death in 1865,
Kunisada was a trendsetter in the art of the Japanese
woodblock print. Always at the vanguard of his time, and in tune with
the tastes of the public, he continuously developed his style, which
was sometimes radically changed, and did not adhere to stylistic
constraints set by any of his contemporaries. His productivity was
extraordinary. About 14,500 individual designs have been catalogued
(polyptych sets counted as a single design) corresponding to more than
22,500 individual sheets. It seems probable based on these figures
Kunisada actually produced between 20,000 and 25,000 designs for
woodblock prints during his lifetime (i.e. 35,000 to 40,000 individual
Dawn at Futamigaura, seascape print by Kunisada, c. 1830
Kunisada portrait of Nakamura Fukusuke as Hayano Kampei
Following the traditional pattern of the Utagawa school, Kunisada's
main occupation was kabuki and actor prints, and about 60% of his
designs fall in this category. However he was also highly active in
the area of bijin-ga prints (comprising about 15% of his complete
works), and their total number was far higher than any other artist of
his time. From 1820 to 1860 he likewise dominated the market for
portraits of sumo wrestlers. For a long time (1835–1850) he had an
almost complete monopoly on the genre of prints related to The Tale of
Genji; it was only after 1850 that other artists began to produce
similar designs. Noteworthy also are the number of his surimono, and
although they were designed almost exclusively prior to 1844, few
artists were better-known in this area.
Sumo wrestling scene, triptych set of three prints by Kunisada, c.
Kunisada's paintings, which were privately commissioned, are
little-known, but can be compared to those of other masters of ukiyoe
painting. His activity as a book illustrator is also largely
unexplored. He was no less productive in the area of ehon than he was
in full-sized prints, and notable among his book prints are shunga
pictures, which appeared in numerous books. Due to censorship, they
are signed only on the title page with his alias "Matahei". Landscape
prints and musha-e (samurai warrior prints) by
Kunisada are rare, and
only about 100 designs in each of these genres are known. He
effectively left these two fields to be covered by his contemporaries
Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi, respectively.
"Shunga" erotic print by Kunisada
The mid-1840s and early 1850s, were a period of expansion when
woodblock prints were in high demand in Japan. During this time
Kunisada collaborated with one of or both
Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi in
three major series as well as on a number of smaller projects. This
co-operation was in large part politically motivated in order to
demonstrate solidarity against the intensified censorship regulations
of the Tenpō Reforms. Also beginning around the mid-1850s there are
series in which individual parts of designs (and sometimes complete
sheets) are signed by Kunisada's students; this was done with the
intention of promoting their work as individual artists. Notable
Kunisada included Toyohara Kunichika,
Utagawa Sadahide and
Reception and legacy
Kunisada had a five-decade career, during which his work was always
popular and sold in the thousands. Towards the end of his life he
began recording his age with his signature on his prints. Later
critics have been reluctant to declare merit in his work, particular
of the later period. An example of the contempt early Western
critics subjected Kusisada's work to:
This very undistinguished artist was one of the most prolific of the
ukiyo-e school. All that meaningless complexity of design, coarseness
of colour, and carelessness of printing which we associate with the
final ruin of the art of colour-prints finds full expression with him.
— Arthur Davison Ficke, Chats on Japanese Prints (1915)
The majority of Kunisada's work was of actors portrayed in current
popular plays; most of the rest was of women in the latest
fashions. The works dated with quickly-changing fashions, and there
was a constant demand for new prints to replace the outdated ones.
Utagawa school members
^ Tinios 1991, p. 362.
^ Tinios 1991, p. 352.
^ a b Tinios 1991, p. 349.
^ Tinios 1991, p. 343.
^ Tinios 1991, pp. 343–344.
Tinios, Ellis (December 1991). "
Kunisada and the Last Flowering of
"Ukiyo-e" Prints". Print Quarterly.
Print Quarterly Publications. 8
(4): 342–362. JSTOR 41824668.
Sebastian Izzard, Kunisada's World (
Japan Society, New York, 1993)
Lars Berglund, Recapturing Utagawa Kunisada: 24 Prints from the Anders
Rikardson Collection (p. 59ff, Vol 25, Issue 1,
January–February 1995, Arts of Asia, Hong Kong)
Jan van Doesburg, What about Kunisada? (Huys den Esch, Dodewaard,
Shigeru Shindo, (translated Yoko Moizumi, E. M. Carmichael), Kunisada:
Kabuki Actor Portraits (Graphic-Sha, Tokyo, 1993)
Ellis Tinios, Mirror of the Stage: The Actor Prints of Kunisada
(University Gallery, Leeds, 1996)
Kunisada (1786–1865) Ausstellung im
Kupferstich-Kabinett des Wallraf-Richartz-Museums [Katalog]"
(Wallraf-Richartz-Museums, Köln, 1966)
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Utagawa Kunisada.
Kunisada Project Overview of Kunisada's work with
thousands of pictures, series titles, lists of actors and kabuki
dramas portrayed by Kunisada, and detailed study of his artistic names
and signatures. During his lifetime, he produced a staggering number
of prints, so that even a partial list includes nearly 1,000 series.
ISNI: 0000 0001 2033 2123
BNF: cb135718579 (data)