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Biography: Shunkôsai HOKUSHÛ (春好齋北洲)

Hokushu 1825 utaemon as gotobei
An ôban print by Hokushû, 3/1825
Nakamura Utaemon III as Gotobei




Hokushu signatureShunkôsai Hokushû (春好齋北洲 act. c. 1802(?)–1832) was arguably the most important print artist in Osaka during the 1810s-1820s, designing many masterpieces featuring portraits of the leading kabuki actors of the period. Little is known about his personal life. He appears to have made a living as a businessman (possibly as a lumber or paper merchant). As did many other artists and writers of the day, he participated in poetry clubs (composing both haikai and kyôka) and was a kabuki enthusiast, with membership in at least one theater fan club (renchû: 贔屓連中).

Hokushû's first known single-sheet print (ichimai-e: 一枚絵) is a hosoban (narrow print: 細判) that may date from as early as 1/1802, portraying Ôtani Tomoemon II (大谷友右衛門) as Inokuma Monbei (猪のくま門兵衛) in Keisei kuruwa Genji (けいせい廓源氏), Naka Theater, Osaka. It is inscribed with a poem signed by his teacher Shôkôsai Hanbei (松好半兵衛 act. c. 1795–1809). The attributed year of this work comes as a surprise, given that it is dated five years earlier than Hokushû’s next earliest known prints. Moreover, there is no evidential explanation for the subsequent hiatus (1802–07).

Hokushû considered himself to be a student of Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北齋 1760-1849), among other things serving in 1819 as a proofing copyist for an illustrated book (ehon: 絵本) by Hokusai titled Denshin kaishu — Hokusai gashiki (Transmitting the spirit and form of things — Hokusai's drawing style: 伝神開手 • 北齋画式). Specific Hokuesai influences have been cited, for example, by Keikô Fujida of the Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art, Yamaguchi City, who identifies the shape of feet and wrinkled garment lines as being particulary derived from Hokusai.

Hokushû was productive but not prolific, given his thirty-year career. The total number of known single-sheet prints appears to be around 215, although there are likely more to be documented or discovered. Hokushû's early works owe much to his teacher Shôkôsai, and certain designs signed either "Shôkô" or "Shunkôsai" also include the pine needle (shô: 松) kakihan (writing seal or mark: 花押) that Shôkôsai introduced (see Hokushû's "Shunkôsai" signature from 1811 with the "shô" kakihan below right).

Hokushu's oeuvre spans the early period of Osaka printmaking, when the hosoban format (細判 approx. 330 x 150 mm) was ascendent through to the full development and dominance of the larger ôban sheet (大判 approx. 390 x 260 mm). The year 1820 marked the appearance of Hokushû's remarkable ôban ôkubi-e ("large-head prints": 大首絵), the first in 3/1820, the last in 7/1826. All told, there are 21 known ôkubi-e by Hokushû. An example is shown on the left, from 3/1825, portraying Nakamura Utaemon III (中村歌右衛門) as Gotobei (五斗兵衛) in Yoshitsune Koshigôjô (Yoshitsune’s Koshigoe petition: 義經腰越状), one from a series titled "Hit plays of a lifetime" (Issei ichidai atari kyôgen: 一世一代当狂言). By the time his career was nearly over, Hokushû was acknowledged as the top-ranked actor portraitist in 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.

Artist Names and Seals

Hokushu signature with kakihanHokushû used five signatures over the course of his career:

Shunkô (春好), from 1/1802 until 1/1818
Shunkôsai (春好齋) alone from 8/1809, or in tandem with Hokushû (北洲) from 1/1818
Shôkôsai (松好 his teacher’s geimei) for only one print in 9/1811, on which he includes aratame (xxx "changing to") announcing a name change to Shōkōsai (II)
Sekkatei (雪花亭) in 1819 as a proofing copyist for Katsushika Hokusai (see discussion above) and in 1822 on two ichimai-e
Hokushû (北洲) alone from 1/1818 until the end of his career

He also used two literary names: Shikan (芝翫 until 11/1825) and Baigyoku (梅玉 11/1825–7/1838) that appear, for instance, with poems inscribed on his own prints and those of other artists.

Hokushû most often used a seal reading "Hokushû" (北洲 see above right). He also used a seal with phonetic characters reading Yoshinoyama (Mount Yoshino, よしのやま), introduced in 1818 and apparently modeled after Hokusai’s Fujinoyama (Mount Fuji, ふじのやま) seal. At least eleven prints by Hokushû are known with the Yoshinoyama seal.

Pupils of Shunkôsai Hokushû

Hokushû had many students, numbering around 25 and starting as early as 1815, making him one of the most active teachers in all of Osaka printmaking. By far, his most important pupil was Shunbaisai Hokuei.

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