Kunichika Toyohara (豊原國周 1835-1900), a ukiyo-e print artist, painter, and book illustrator, was born Ôshima Yasohachi in the Kyôbashi district, a merchant and artisan area of Edo. His father, Ôshima Kujû (大島九十), was the proprietor of a sentô (洗湯 public bathhouse), the Ōshūya, a business he lost sometime during Yasohachi's childhood. His mother, named Arakawa Oyao (荒川お八百), was the daughter of a teahouse proprietor. To distance themselves from the father's failure, the family took the mother's surname, and Kunichika became Arakawa Yasohachi (荒川八十八).
At age ten Kunichika was apprenticed to a thread and yarn store, but the following year he moved to a shop near his father's bathhouse where he helped design lampshades for andon (lamps, 行灯). When he was around twelve, his older brother, Chôkichi, opened a shop in 1846 called the Arakawa Shashinkan (Arakawa Photography Studio) to sell oshi-e (押絵 "pasted-on pictures") or collage pictures, for which Yasohachi drew the illustrations. Around that time, Yasohachi also began to study with and provide actor portraits for Toyohara (Ichiôsai 一鶯齋) Chikanobu (popular name Toriyama Shinji). This particular Chikanobu was a minor artist of the Hasegawa school working in the Kanô style of painting who also designed actor portraits for hagoita (battledores: 羽子板) that were sold in a shop called Meirindô. He should not to be confused with Kunichika’s own student also named Toyohara Chikanobu. Yasohachi's teacher seems to have given him the name "Kazunobu." [see Hinkel ref. p. 74]
The following year, at age 13, Yasohachi joined the studio of Utagawa Kunisada, the leading and most prolific print maker of the mid-19th century. Kunichika produced some illustrations for books, and in 1848 he provided an inset design for a print included in Kunisada's Kuni zukushi Yamato meiyo (Collection of the provinces with honorable characters of Japan, 國尽倭名誉). By 1853-54, the still-young artist made his first confirmed signed print and took the art name "Kunichika", a composite of the names of this two teachers, Kunisada and Chikanobu. Although Kunichika used a number of different gô (art pseudonyms, 號), he seems never to have signed with the name Utagawa, despite studying with Kunisada and occasionally using the toshidama ("New Year's jewel, 年玉) signature cartouche favored by the Utagawa artists (see "Ôsai" signature at left). Otherwise, we find the following gô: Ichiô (一鶯), Ichiôsai (一鶯齋 c. 1855-70), Kachôrô (華蝶楼 c. 1853), Ôsai (鶯齋), and Hôshunrô (豊春樓 c. 1891-95).
Kunichika was a prolific artist, producing over 100 series as well as numerous individual designs while working for more than an astonishing 100 different publishers, most importantly, Fukuda Kumajirô (福田熊次郎), Gusokuya Kahei (具足屋嘉兵衛), and Sawamuraya Seikichi (沢村屋清吉). Frequently encountered are his numerous triptychs, some of which feature a single figure (usually an actor) depicted across all three sheets. During his long career, Kunichika focused mainly on yakusha-e (actor prints, 役者絵), but he also designed bijinga (prints of beautiful women, 美人画), sensô-e (war prints, 戦争絵), musha-e (warrior prints, 武者絵), kaika-e (enlightenment pictures, 開化絵), jidai-e (history prints, 時代絵), omocha-e (toy prints, 玩具絵), and illustrated books (ehon, 絵本), including some erotica. In regard to yakusha-e, Kunichika was the foremost chronicler of the great acting triumvirate of the kabuki stage: the so-called Dan-Kiku-Sa, namely, Ichikawa Danjûrô IX (九代目 市川団十郎 1839-1903), Onoe Kikugorô V (五代目 尾上菊五郎 1844-1903), and Ichikawa Sadanji I (一代目 市川左國次 1842-1904).
By 1865, Kunichika was listed among the top ten ukiyo-e print artists in the Tokyo ryûkô saikenki (東京流行細見記 Tokyo popularity guide). Saikenki were rating guides for fads and trending personalities (lit. "close-inspection directories"). Kunichika placed eighth, and in 1867, he came in fifth. That same year, he was officially invited to submit a print to the world exhibition in Paris (Exposition universelle [d'art et d'industrie]). Nearly two decades later, he maintained his position in the print world when he placed fourth in 1885 (after Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 月岡芳年, Kobayashi Eitaku 小林永濯, and Utagawa Yoshiiku 歌川芳幾). The objectivity of these guides should be considered with some caution, but they presumably indicate some measure of industry-wide popularity. One might argue, for example, that neither Eitaku nor Yoshiiku should come to mind as notable ukiyo-e artists, whereas Yoshitoshi certainly ranks among the very best of 19th-century artists. Yoshitoshi's consistently imaginative and innovative designs and subjects are only occasionally matched by designs in Kunichika's oeuvre. In any case, it appears that Kunichika was considered good enough to ask relatively high fees for his work.
The ôban diptych shown above right portrays Ichikawa Danjûrô IX (市川団十郎) as Kamakura Gongorô Kagemasa (鎌倉権五郎景政) in Shibaraku ("Wait a moment!" or "Stop right there!," 暫), a showpiece scene or short-drama comprising standardized but bombastic confrontations in kabuki kaomise ("face-showing," 顔見世) performances (opening the new theatrical seasons), typical of the aragoto-style ("rough stuff," 荒事) of playwriting. It was first performed in 1692 and then slightly revised in 1/1697 by Ichikawa Danjûrô I at the Nakamura-za, Edo within the drama Daifukuchô Sankai Nagoya (大福帳参會名古屋). By the early eighteenth century, the scene had become virtually obligatory in kabuki’s kaomise performances. Shibaraku is derived from an actual occurrence when fellow actors refused to give Danjûrô I his cue to make an entrance. Danjûrô shouted "Shibaraku!" and stepped onto the hanamichi (lit., "flower path": 花道) or raised passageway extending from the kabuki stage into the audience. In various stagings of Shibaraku, the plot involves the rescue by Kamakura Gongorô Kagemasa of a group of loyalists imprisoned by an evil lord intent on usurping imperial power. The reddish-brown or persimmon color of the flamboyant costume is meant to convey colossal strength, as does the wildly exaggerated proportions of the sleeves patterned with the Ichikawa clan’s mimasu (three rice measures, 三舛) crests (also used for the frame around the composition). Most actors in the role wear makeup called suji-guma (blatant line makeup, 筋隈) with red lines or bands painted on an opaque white cosmetic ground. The poem is signed Sanshô (三升), one of the the literary names used by Ichikawa Danjûrô IX. The artist signature reads ôju Toyohara Kunichika hitsu (By request, drawn by Toyohara Kunichika, 雄需 豊原國周筆). The artist's personal name Arakawa Yasohachi (荒川八十八) is given in the middle-left yellow cartouche, while the publisher is identified as Tanaka Katsuzô (田中勝蔵) in the adjacent blue cartouche.
Works by Kiyochika can be found in many institutional collections, including the Adachi City Museum of Art, Tokyo; Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Art Gallery of New South Wales; Art Institute of Chicago; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK; British Museum, London; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Cincinnati Museum of Art; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Harvard Art Museums; Ikeda Bunko Library, Osaka; Los Angeles County Museum of Art;Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Diet Library, Tokyo; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian, Wash. DC; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Tokyo Metropolitan Library; Tokyo National Museum; Waseda University, Tokyo; and Worchester Art Museum, MA.
The information on this page is based on John Fiorillo's web page: