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Biography: Utagawa KUNISADA I (歌川國貞 [初代] )

Kunichika 1863 portrait of kunisada 1st
Toyohara Kunichika print from 1863
Portrait of Utagawa Kunisada I




Kunisada I signaturesKunisada I signaturesUtagawa Kunisada I (歌川國貞 [初代] 1786-1865) was the most celebrated actor-print designer of the nineteenth century, and certainly the most prolific. He was born and raised in the Honjô district of Edo, the son of a well-to-do ferry owner. This licensed ferry service provided the family with a measure of financial security that Kunisada was able to access during his early years of printmaking apprenticeship. His family name was Tsunoda (角田) and given name Shôgorô IX (庄五朗) and also Shôzô (庄蔵). [Note: Some have read the kanji for Tsunoda 角田 as "Sumida."]

In 1800-1801, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, he became a pupil of Utagawa Toyokuni I (歌川豊國 1769-1825) and took the artist name "Kunisada" (國貞) soon thereafter (see signature image at immediate right). In 1/1807 he produced his first independent work — an illustrated promotional brochure for perfumed oil made by Yorozuya Shirobei. The text was wirtten by the eminent novelist Takizawa Bakin (滝沢馬琴 1767-1848) and titled "Gate of immortality, New Year's water for cosmetics (Oi senu kado keshô no wakamizu). Distributed as a New Year's gift, it was not a commercial production, although it was later sold as such in a trade edition in 1809.

In 3/1807, Kunisada provided designs in the genre of bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画) for the series Keisei junitoki (Twelve hours of the courtesans: 傾城十二時). These early bijinga were somewhat immature and suffered in comparison to his designs in this genre even just two years later in 1809. Kunisada's first theatrical print was made in 3/1808, a fan print (uchiwa-e: 團扇絵) portraying Matsumoto Kôshirô V as Nikki Danjo, published by Senzaburô (Dansendô). The following month, Kunisada depicted the Osaka-based actor Nakamura Utaemon III performing at the Nakamura-za in Edo as Yojirô the monkey trainer in the play Oshun Denbei. Soon after, he completed a triptych of beauties and then embarked on illustrations for books (ehon or picture books: 絵本). He would continue to design for ehon throughout his career, providing huge numbers of images for actor-print books and illustrated popular fiction. Even early on, he was prodigiously creative in this genre, as in 1808 when he contributed to no fewer then fourteen ehon.

By the 1810s Kunisada was involved in designing more than fifty series of beauties and actors, as well as a few warrior prints. Yet although much of his reputation rests upon his actor prints (yakusha-e: 役者絵), which represent roughly sixty percent of his total oeuvre, Kunisada was in fact a leading designer of bijinga. He also excelled in the design of surimono (privately issued and distributed high-quality specialty prints: 摺物). He produced large numbers of surimono in the prevailing shikishiban format (色紙判 approx. 205 x 185 mm), such as the one shown below from 11/1823 depicting Ichikawa Danjûrô VII as Iga no Jutarô.

It was during the second decade of the nineteenth century that Kunisada established his teaching studio. By 1814 his students were already designing their own book illustrations for publication. It has been estimated that as many as 15,000 to 20,000 print designs were issued from his studio, as well as thousands of illustrations for woodblock-printed books (ehon). Given that some of these single-sheet prints and ehon were issued in thousands of impressions, the number of actual printed sheets sold by the various publishers over Kunisada's long career must have been astounding. Little wonder that his prints are among the most frequently encountered in collections around the world. Kunisada enjoyed enormous commercial success once he established his studio, whose production of Utagawa-school woodcuts dominated the world of ukiyo-e prints from the 1820s into the beginning of the Meiji era. It seems that without question, he became the most prolific and most commercially successful artist in the history of the ukiyo-e school.

With such an enormous output, it isn't surprising that Kunisada's designs were uneven in quality, which has given rise to questions about his workshop practices and the degree of involvement by his many pupils. Moreover, as a large percentage of his works involved actors, the opaqueness of the kabuki theater to the uninitiated Western observer did little to endear him to the early twentieth-century collectors. Not helping matters were the many compositions that seemed perfunctory in their design or execution, and the large numbers of respectable designs surviving only in late impressions and in poor condition. These circumstances continue to bring about accusations of inferior work cast upon Kunisada's entire oeuvre, which ignores the finest products of the Utagawa studio, especially from his early years, or in surimono production, or from occasional later deluxe editions. Whether his students had a hand in some or most of the more inferior products from Kunisada's studio is difficult to determine, but it is likely to be true, at least to some extent. Nevertheless, the very best of Kunisada's designs, which span his entire career, number among the masterpieces of nineteenth-century ukiyo-e.

Kunisada I signaturesIn the second half of the 1820s, Kunisada took lessons from the painter Hanabusa Ikkei (英一珪) 1749-1844), a fourth-generation successor to the preeminent painter, calligrapher, and poet Hanabusa Itchô (英一蝶 1652-1724). During the 1830s, actor prints continued to be Kunisada's primary subject while he also produced a great many book illustrations. He also began to add landscape views to serve as backgrounds or settings for actors and beauties. We do not usually associate the landscape print with Kunisada, but he did, on at least one occasion, actually create some excellent stand-alone landscapes for a set of ten untitled prints published by Yamaguchiya Tôbei (Kinkôdô) in the early 1830s. They were probably issued in response to the recent success of Katsushika Hokusai's Fugaku sanjûrokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji: 富嶽三十六景), also issued in the early 1830s. The compositions were based in part on the Nanga-school artist Kawamura Bumpô's influential Bumpô sansui gafu (Bumpô's album of landscape painting: 文鳳山水画譜), issued posthumously by Bunchôdô in 1824, but Kunisada's prints combined western influences with Kyoto-based literati painting styles. A few of these landscapes are considered masterpieces of the genre. Surviving impressions from this set are uncommon and all are well printed, which suggests that they were issued in relatively small editions.

In 1844, Kunisada took the name Toyokuni (豊國 see signature image at top far right) and claimed that he was the second to hold the "Toyokuni" geimei or art name. Thus, his signature appeared on a few prints as "Kunisada changing to Toyokuni II" (Kunisada aratame nidai Toyokuni: 國貞改二代豊國). However, the artist Utagawa Toyoshige (豊重 1777-1835) had taken the "Toyokuni" name previously and thus today he is known as "Toyokuni II" while Kunisada is designated "Toyokuni III."

Kunisada died on January 12, 1865, according to the western Gregorian calendar (corresponding to 12/15/1864 on the Japanese lunar calendar). His posthumous Buddhist name is Hôkokuin Teishôgasen Shinji and he is buried at the Banshôin Kôun-ji. He left behind a prodigious output, which at its best ranked with the finest prints of the late Edo period.

Kunisada I: Names

Note: Signatures on ukiyo-e prints frequently end with the characters for "drawn by" (ga: 画), as is the case with the two signature images shown above at the top right, or "painted by" (hitsu [fude]: 筆).


Utagawa (歌川)

Art names (geimei):

Kunisada (國貞) from 1807 until 1843
Toyokuni (豊) from 1844

Pseudonyms ():

Kunisada's many art pseudonyms () are sometimes found in use at non-continuous intervals over a few or even many years. There are also a various "special" signatures that were, it seems, linked with particular occasions, for example, "Ukabuse" [Oukamuse] (於浮瀬) 1821-22 (refers to a famous restaurant in Osaka). Moreover, there are prefixes that are not , such as "ôju" (to satisfy the demand or by demand: 応需), "ôkō" (to satisfy the taste: 應好), "shimoto no ôju" (to satisfy the publisher's demand: 梓元乃応需) and "ôju sai" (to satisfy the demand again: 応需再). Moreover, from 1861, Kunisada often included his age with the signature; before that year, it was rare that he would do so.

The list below offers information on what seem to be Kunisada's primary , which are given in order of estimated first appearance. Occasionally, two of the gô might be found together in a single signature, or even combined with the surname "Utagawa," as is the case with Gototei and Kôchôrô.

Gototei (五渡亭) 1809 - 1845
Gepparô (月波楼) 1811 - 1813
Ichiyûsai (一雄齋) 1811 - c. 1817
Kinraisha (琴雷舎]) 1813 - c. 1817 (said to be derived from his father's poetry name Gokyotei Kinrai
Kôchôrô (香蝶楼) 1824-1861 (see image of signature with yellow background at top right)
Hanabusa Itchô [Ittai] (英一蝶) c. 1820s - 1858
Tôjuen (桃樹園) 1827 - 1830s (only on surimono?)
Matahei (又平) 1830s (shunga)
Ichiyôsai (一陽齋] c. 1840s - 1861
Kokuteisha (國貞舎) c. 1847 - 1851
Ichisensai (一壽齋) at least by 1848 (found in ehon)

Hokubaiko (北梅戸) 1845
Eishû (英舟) After 1844?
Fubô-sanjin (富眺山人) After 1844?
Yanagishima (柳島) After 1844; Kunisada was called "Yanagishima Toyokuni," referring to where he lived.
Fu-chôan (富眺庵) c. 1853 - 1858
Hinashi (雛獅) c. 1858 - 1859

From around 1850, nearly all signatures were enclosed within a toshidama (年玉) cartouche with various color fills (red, yellow, green, blue). For an example, see the image at the top far right. The cartouche was the sign of the Utagawa artist lineage, with the ideogram for "year" (toshi 年) written in highly stylized script at the upper right of a circle or ball (dama 玉). Utagawa Toyokuni I, founder of the lineage, appears to have been the first to use the toshidama seal around 1808 in his gôkan (“combined volumes,” popular novels issued in multi-volume sets: 合卷).

Pupils of Kunisada I

The list of pupils given below is a provisional one. Unless otherwise noted, these artists were pupils of Kunisada who worked in Edo. Their associations with Kunisada ranged from long-term apprenticeships in the studio to those who benefited from some brief tutelage by the master. Although these artists number more than 40 print designers, they surely do not represent the entire roster of pupils who spent time in the Kunisada studio. As for the small number of Osaka artists included below, they were, for the most part, pupils of Osaka masters who also happened to study with Kunisada in Edo, probably only for brief periods of time.

Names given within parentheses are selected included to help identify the artists. Some alternate geimei are also indicated after the . To avoid excessive repetition, Japanese characters for the surname "Utagawa" (歌川) are not indicated. The Japanese characters for a few names cited in English by other sources have not yet been confirmed and thus have been omitted. Artists are listed in approximate order of first known works.

Utagawa Kunishige I (國重 Nagasaki 長崎 Baigansai 梅丸齋; geimei: Shigeharu 重春 act. c. 1804-1818) Osaka
Utagawa Sadahide (貞秀 Gountei 五雲亭 Gyokuransai 玉蘭齋 1807-1879)
Utagawa Sadashige (貞繁 act. c. 1810s-1820s)
Utagawa Sadakame (貞歌女 act. c. 1818-1830)
Utagawa Sadatora (貞虎 Gofûtei 五風亭 act. c. 1818-1844)
Utagawa Sadafusa (貞房 Gokitei 五亀亭 act. c. 1818-early 1850s) Edo, then Osaka (pupil of Shigeharu, 重春)
Utagawa Nobusada (信貞 act. c. 1819-early 1830s), Osaka (studied there with Shigeharu, 重春)
Utagawa Sadakage (貞景 Gokitei 五湖亭 act. c. 1820s-1830s), Osaka
Utagawa Kunisada II (國貞 Ichijusai 一壽齋; geimei: Kunimasa III 國政 Toyokuni IV 豊國 act. c. 1823-1880)
Utagawa Sadahiro I (貞廣 Gochôtei 五蝶亭 act. c. late 1820s-mid-1850s), Osaka; with Kunisada c. 1828
Utagawa Sadachika (貞周 act. c. 1830-1844)
Utagawa Sadahisa (貞久 act. c. 1830-1848)
Utagawa Sadakatsu (貞勝 Takigawa 多㐂川 act. c. 1830-1848)
Utagawa Sadakiyo (貞清 act. c. 1830-1844)
Utagawa Sadakuni (貞國 act. c. 1830-1844)
Utagawa Sadamine (act. c. 1830-1844) different artist from later Sadamine
Utagawa Sadanao (貞猶 act. c. 1830-1844)
Utagawa Sadaoka (定岡 Gakutei 岳亭 act. c. 1830-1844)
Utagawa Sadataka (貞孝 act. c. 1830-1844)
Utagawa Sadatsuna (貞綱 Gofûtei 五風亭 act. c. 1830-1844)
Utagawa Sadamine (act. c. 1830-1850s) different artist from earlier Sadamine
Utagawa Sadatoshi (貞年 act. c. 1830-1850s)
Utagawa Yoshitoyo (芳豊 Ichiryûsai 一龍齋 1830-1866) also member of Utagawa Kuniyoshi school
Utagawa Kunimori (國盛; geimei: Shunshô 春升 act. c. 1830-1861)
Utagawa Sadamasu (貞升 Ichijusai 一樹齋; geimei: Kunimasu 國升 act. c. 1830-1854), Osaka artist pupil of Kunisada in Edo
Hasegawa Sadanobu I (貞信 1809-1879; act. c. 1834–79), Osaka
Utagawa Sadatsugu (貞次 Gochôtei 五蝶亭 act. c. 1835–39), Osaka
Utagawa Sadayoshi (貞芳 Baisôen 梅窓園 Kaishuntei 魁春亭 Gohyôtei 五瓢亭 act. c. 1837-1853), Osaka
Utagawa Kuniteru II (國輝 Yôsai 曜齋 Ichiyôsai 一曜齋 1830-1874)
Utagawa Kunihisa II (國久 Ichiryûsai 一龍齋 1832-1891) Edo and Yokohama
Toyohara Kunichika (豊原國周 1835-1900) later head of Kunichika school
Utagawa Kuniaki I (國明 act. c. 1840s-1860s)
Utagawa Kuniaki II (國明 Ichiôsai 一凰齋 and Ippôsai 一鳳齋 1835-1888)
Utagawa Kunimaro (國麿 Ichiensai 一圓齋 and Shôchôrô 枩蝶樓; geimei: Kikukôshi 菊越 act. c. 1845-1875)
Utagawa Hirosada (廣貞 Gosotei 五粽亭 and Konishi 小西 c. 1847-1863) Osaka artist studied with Kunisada in Edo
Utagawa Kunitomi II (国富 act. c. 1848-1854)
Utagawa Kunishige I (國重 act. c. 1848-1860) Edo artist, not Kunishige/Shigeharu in Osaka
Utagawa Kunitoku (国得 act. c. 1832-early Meiji)
Utagawa Kunimasa IV (國政 Baidô 梅堂; geimei: Kunisada III 國貞 Hosai 豊齋 Kôchôrô 香朝樓 act. c. 1848-1920)
Utagawa Kunifuku (國福 Isshôsai 一昇齋 act. c. 1854-1860)
Utagawa Kunikazu (國員 Ichijusai 一珠齋 act. c. 1849–1881), Osaka
Utagawa Kunikazu (國計 act. c. 1856-1858)
Utagawa Kunisato (國鄕; geimei: Ritsusensai 立川齋 act. c. 1843 - died 1858)
Utagawa Kunitoshi (國利 Baiju 梅壽 Baiô 梅翁 1847-1899)

For more information about Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III), see John Fiorillo's web page: