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Biography: Shunbaisai HOKUEI (春梅齋北英)

Hokuei 1832 kumagai atsumori
Hokuei double ôkubi-e from 2/1832
Kumagai and Atsumori at the Gojô Bridge


Hokuei signatureShunbaisai Hokuei (春梅齋北英), active 1828-1836, was the culminating print designer in Osaka's central artistic lineage, whose predecessors were Ryûkôsai Jokei, Shôkôsai Hanbei, and Shunkôsai Hokushû. He studied with Hokushû (春好齋北洲 act. c. 1802-1832) and acknowledged him as his teacher on at least six early print designs. Hokuei's first single-sheet print is shown on the left, a portrait of the actor Nakamura Utaemon III (中村歌右衛門) as Kujaku Saburô Narihira (孔雀三郎業平) in "Love under the plum, pine, and cherry at the heaven filling shrine" (Tenmangû aiju no meiboku: 天満宮愛梅松桜), 1/1828.

Working for only nine years (his first known print dates to 1/1828 on the lunar calendar), Hokuei nevertheless dominated the production of actor prints, especially during the years 1832-36, when he accounted for roughly 60 percent of all prints published in Osaka. Hokuei designed approximately 270 compositions (when counting polyptychs as one design), including some of the most technically accomplished ukiyo-e prints ever produced (most notably in collaboration with, first, the master blockcarver Kasuke (加助 also 嘉助) from 1830 to 1835, and then Kumazô (熊造) from 1832 to 1836.

Hokuei was listed as an actor portraitist on the single-sheet broadside Naniwa shoryû gajin meika annai ("Guide to the many famous contemporary artists of Osaka": 浪華諸流画人名家案内) circa 1831, where his address is recorded as Itachibori 1-chôme in Osaka; pupil of Shunkôsai Hokushû and the last in that illustrous line of printmakers (Ryûkôsai - Shôkôsai - Hokushû - Hokuei). He was mentioned as being "famous" in a yakusha hyôbanki (actor critiques: 役者評判記) for the year 1836. His death is mentioned in an actor critique as having occurred in the eleventh lunar month of Tenpô 7, which corresponds to the period December 8, 1836 to January 6, 1837 on the Western calendar.

Many of Hokuei's prints were technical marvels employing advanced block-cutting and printing techniques. Some of the best involved the aforementioned block carver Kasuke, as with the double portrait shown on the left. Hokuei often used a tension-filled dramatic approach toward much of his actor portraiture, sometimes positioning isolated figures against monochromatic backgrounds to emphasize the actors' expressions and emotional states. He experimented with unusual placements of solitary figures, which when combined with articulated gestures, postures, and facial expressions (mie, or "display": 見得), resulted in a notable body of work. Hokuei also arranged solitary figures to suggest related action beyond the confines of the single sheet, which added a sense of uncertainty and dramatic possibility.

Artist Names and Seals

Hokuei signed with two artist names (geimei: 芸名), Shunkô (春江) and Hokuei (北英), and used three artist pseudonyms (gô: 號), Shunkôsai (春江齋), Shunbaisai (春梅齋), and Sekkarô (雪花 [華]), with a variation for the second character "ka" (華) on two of his prints. The dates for these signatures appear below.

Art Names (geimei):
Shunkô (春江): 1/1828 – 5/1829
Hokuei (北英): 1/1828 - 11/1836

Art Pseudonyms (gô):
Shunkôsai (春江齋): 8/1829 ‒ 1/1834
Shunbaisai(春梅齋): 11/1833 ‒ 10/1836 (see signature above right)
Sekkarô (雪花 [華] 楼): 1/1836 ‒ 8/1836

Hokuei seems to have used more artist seals (including many with the same reading in variant forms) than any other Osaka print artist:

Seal Readings:
Hokuei (北英; by far the most used seal; see image above right for one variant)
Fumoto no yuki (ふもとのゆき); the second most commonly used seal)
Shunkô (春江 five impressions)
Sekkarô (雪花楼 four impressions)
Sekka (雪花 two impressions)
Koshiji no yuki (こしじのゆき two impressions)
Fumoto no mume (ふもとのむめ one impression only)
Koshiji no mume (こしじのゆき one impression only)
Shunei (春英 one impression only)
Toshidama (年玉 one impression only)
Bai (or Mume) (梅 only one example on a painting)

Pupils of Hokuei

Hokuei had around 15-20 pupils. Only seven artists signed as his students on at least one of their recorded prints. The remaining 11 artists have been identified in one or more sources as students on the basis of their signatures, drawing style, and dates of known prints or paintings. At this time, those eleven attributions remain fluid, pending further research.

Seven Artists signing as pupils of Hokuei:

  • Shunshôsai Hokuju [春松齋北壽 also Shuneisai Hokuju, 春英齋北壽 and Goryûken, 五龍軒] act. c. 1828-1836
  • Shunyûsai Hokuho [春友齋北芳] act. c. 1830
  • Shunmeisei Hokuchô (春明齋北潮) act. c. 1830
  • Kisseidô Togetsu Hokumei (橘生堂兎月北溟) [not Hokushû's pupil of that name with different kaji for "mei": 北明] act. c. 1830
  • Tôhôhan Hokusei [東方南北西 also used Shunshisai Hokkai, 春始齋北海] act. 1832-1833
  • Shunyûsai Hokusetsu [春勇齋北雪] act. c. 1830s
  • Shunshô (春荘 or 春莊) act. c. 10/1835

For more information about Hokuei, see John Fiorillo's web page: