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Biography: Utagawa KUNIYOSHI (歌川國芳)

Kuniyoshi 1852 portrayal of Danshichi Kurobei
Kuniyoshi print from 8/1852
Nakamura Utaemon IV as Danshichi Kurobei
Earlier performance (7/1845) of Zôho Naniwa kagami
(Expanded mirror of Osaka: 増補浪花鑑)
Series: Edo meisho mitate jûnikagetsu no uchi
(Analogues of famous places in Edo during 12 months)




Kuniyoshi signatureUtagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川芳) was the son of a silk dyer named Yanagiya Kichiemon. When he was about 12 years of age, Kuniyoshi was accepted as a student of Utagawa Toyokuni I (歌川豊國 1769-1825). His first known work is an illustrated book from 1814, and his first single-sheet print appeared in 1815. A prolific print designer, book illustrator, and painter, he produced more than 5,000 ukiyo-e print compositions. His subjects included warriors (musha-e), legends and folklore, kabuki actors (yakusha-e), women (bijinga), domestic scenes, manners and customs (fûzukuga: 風俗画), landscapes (fûkeiga), nature (animals and flora, kachôga), religious prints, memorial prints (shini-e), wrestlers, erotica (shunga), comic pictures (giga-e), games and pastimes, and trick pictures (komochi-e). Yet although Kuniyoshi designed prints in a wide variety of subject areas, he is most recognized for his prints depicting warriors, scenes of historical figures and events, and legends.

Kuniyoshi's first known designs were produced for an illustrated kusazôshi gôkan (frivolous literature, 草双紙 in "combined volumes," 合卷). Written in 1814 by Taketsuka Tôshi, the work was titled Gobuji chûshingura (Chûshingura with a Happy Ending), a parody of the famous revenge tale Kanadehon chûshingura (Copybook of the treasury of loyal retainers: 仮名手本忠臣蔵) in which the mass seppuku (ritual suicide: 切腹) of the original version does not take place and all forty-seven rônin live long and happy lives. As for Kuniyoshi's his first single-sheet print, it appeared in 1815 — a portrayal of Nakamura Utaemon III as Shundô Jiroemon in Ori awase tsuzure no nishiki (Weaving a brocade of rags: 織合襤褸錦) . His first known heroic triptych was published in 1818. However, from about that year until 1827, Kuniyoshi seems to have done little of any consequence.

Finally, Kuniyoshi gained widespread fame when he rocked the printmaking world, beginning in 1827, with his series Tsûzoku suikoden gôketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori (The 108 heroes of the Suikoden: 通俗水滸傳豪傑百八人之一個) in which he portrayed legendary Chinese heroes from a hugely popular semi-fictional saga, Tales of the Water Margin (水滸傳;, Ch., Sui Ho Chuan or Shui Hu Zhuan). Based on the fourteenth-century Chinese novel, The Suikoden was a rousing and bloody epic celebrating the exploits of a band of righteous outlaws led by Song Jiang, whose base of operations was an encampment by a marsh (the "water margin" of the title) on Mount Liang (Liangshan; Jp., Ryôsanpaku). Kuniyoshi's series never reached the full complement of 108 heroes, as only 75 heroes appear on 74 known ôban-size sheets. A large majority of the figures fill the pictorial spaces dynamically, their expressive faces accentuating the individuality of each character. Moreover, the exotic costumes, the ersatz European-inspired chiaroscuro, the dazzling range of weaponry, the diversity of poses, and the commanding visual presence and bristling energy of the figures all helped fuel a Suikoden print-collecting craze in Edo and Osaka.

When the Tenpô reforms of 1842 banned prints of beautiful women and kabuki actors, prints depicting warriors, legends, and landscapes became the life-blood of artists like Kuniyoshi. As a result, he issued several large series of warrior prints in the 1840s. Yet even historical subjects could prove dangerous if treated in the wrong manner. In 1843, when Kuniyoshi designed a very popular satirical triptych of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and the earth spider, the woodblocks and remaining stocks of unsold prints were confiscated and destroyed, and Kuniyoshi was investigated and officially reprimanded.

Kuniyoshi produced fûkeiga (landscapes: 風景画) in several series, including five early productions in the 1830s: Tôto (The Eastern Capital: 東都) published by Yamaguchiya Tôbei c. 1833; Sankai meisan zukushi (Famous Products of Mountain and Sea: 山海名産盡), with figures and landscapes, published by Shin Iseya Kohei, c. 1833; Tôto meisho (Famous Views of the Eastern Capital: 東都名所), published by Kagaya Kichibei, c. 1834; Tôkaidô go-jû-san eki roku shuku meisho (Famous Views of the Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô: 東海道五拾三駅四宿名所), co-published by Tsuruya Kihei and Tsutaya Kichizô, c. 1835; and Kôsô go-ichidai ryaku zu (Illustrated Abridged Biography of Kôsô: 高祖御一代略図), published by Iseya Rihei, 1835-1836.

Kuniyoshi 1844 Takiyasha-hime cnjures giant skeleton
Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Sôma no furudairi ni Masakado himegimi Takiyasha yôjutsu o motte mikata o atsumuru;
Ôya no Tarô Mitsukuni yôkai o tamesan to koko ni kitari tsui ni kore o horobosu
(In the Ruined Palace at Sôma, Masakado's Daughter Takiyasha Uses Sorcery to Gather Allies;
Ôya no Tarô Mitsukuni Comes Here to Investigate the Monsters and Finally Destroys Them)
Woodblock print, ôban nishiki-e, c. 1844-45
Publisher: Hachi (八) ?

Among the most remarkable of all ukiyo-e prints is Kuniyoshi's spectacular portrayal of Takiyasha-hime (Princess Takiyasha: 瀧夜叉姫) summoning a giant skeleton-specter to intimidate Ôya Tarô Mitsukuni (大宅太郎光國) at her father Taira no Masakado's (平将門) ruined palace of Sôma (相馬) at Sashima in Shimôsa province. Kuniyoshi designed several prints based on this story, including the celebrated triptych shown above.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi's 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). To avoid excessive repetition, Japanese characters for the surname "Utagawa" (歌川) are not indicated.

Yoshiiku 1861 memorial portrait of kuniyoshiSurnames:
Utagawa (歌川)
Igusa / Ikusa (井草) later family name

Personal names:
Yoshisaburô (芳三郎) childhood name
Magosaburô (孫三郎)
Tarôemon (太郎右衛門)

Art Name (geimei):
Kuniyoshi (國芳)

Art Pseudonyms ():
Ichiyûsai (一勇彩)
Chôôrô (朝櫻楼)
Ikusa (井草)
Saishôsa (採芳舎)
Sekkoku (雪谷)
Senshin (仙真)

Poetry Name (haimyô):
Ryûen (柳燕)

Pseudonym for shunga or erotic prints (ingô):
Ichimyokai Hodoyoshi (一妙開程芳)

Pupils of Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Kuniyoshi had an enomous number of students, although the vast majority were very minor artists of little or no consequence. Their associations with Kuniyoshi ranged from long-term apprenticeships in the studio to those who benefited from a brief tutelage by the master. More than 70 names are listed below; no doubt, others remain to be verified and added.

Harusada II (春貞 1830-87, act. c. 1848–1855; : Yasukawa 保川); Kyoto artist
Kyôsai (暁齋 1831-89; Family name: Kawanabe Nobuyuki 河鍋陳之, used various )
Tomiyuki (富雪 c. 1848–1850s; : Rokkatei (六花亭 or 緑華亭), Senkintei (千錦亭); a possible student
Yono (世の)
Yoshiaki (芳明)
Yoshichika (芳近 ?-1868)
Yoshiei (芳栄, ?-1869)
Yoshifuji (芳藤 1828–87, act. c. late 1850s; : Ichiôsai [Ippôsai] (一鵬齋芳藤) Osaka artist
Yoshifusa II (芳房 1837-1860)
Yoshifusa-jo I (芳房女 act. c. 1850)
Yoshigiku (芳菊)
Yoshigiri (芳桐)
Yoshiharu (芳春, also 芳晴, 1828-1888; : Ikusaburô 幾三郎)
Yoshihide (芳秀 1832-1902)
Yoshihide (芳栄)
Yoshihiko (芳彦)
Yoshihiro (芳廣, ?-1884)
Yoshihisa (芳久 act. c. 1862-63)
Yoshiiku (芳幾 1833-1904), designed memorial portrait of Kuniyoshi in 1861, shown above right
Yoshijo (芳女 act. end Edo period or c. 1848-64?)
Yoshikabu (芳蕪)
Yoshikado (芳廉, act. c. 1850)
Yoshikage (芳影)
Yoshikage (芳景, ?-1892)
Yoshikane (芳兼 1832-1881)
Yoshikata (芳形 act. c. 1841-1864)
Yoshikatsu (芳勝 act. c. 1850 or c. 1848-64?)
Yoshikazu (芳員 act. 1850-60)
Yoshikiyo (芳清)
Yoshikono (act.. c. 1850)
Yoshikoto (芳琴 act. c. 1852–56; : Ittôsai 一樋齋)
Yoshikuni (芳州) act. beginning Meiji; diff. from Osaka artist Yoshikuni 芳國 act. c. 1813–32)
Yoshikuni (芳國 act. c. 1850; diff. from Osaka artist Yoshikuni 芳國 act. c. 1813–32)
Yoshimaro (芳麿)
Yoshimaru I (芳丸 act. c. 1850)
Yoshimaru II (芳丸 二代, 1844-1907)
Yoshimasa (芳政 act. c. 1830-60)
Yoshimasu (芳升)
Yoshimi (芳見)
Yoshimitsu (芳満 1837-1910)
Yoshimori I (芳盛 1830-85)
Yoshimoto (芳基)
Yoshimune I (芳宗 1817-80)
Yoshimura (芳村 also 芳邨 1846-?)
Yoshinaka (芳仲)
Yoshinao (芳直 act. 1854-56 Edo)
Yoshinobu (芳延 1838-1890 Edo)
Yoshinobu (芳信 act. 1860s Edo) diff. from Osaka Yoshinobu who used : Ippyôtei (一瓢亭), Ippyôsai (一瓢齋)
Yoshisada (芳貞 also signed Kiyonobu 清貞, act. Meiji period)
Yoshisato (芳里 act. c. 1850)
Yoshisato (芳郷)
Yoshisen (芳仙)
Yoshishige (芳重, also written 吉重, act. c. 1840-55)
Yoshitada (芳忠 act. c. 1850)
Yoshitaka (芳鷹 act. c. 1850s)
Yoshitama-jo (芳玉女 also signed Shimizu 清水, 1836-70 female), also a pupil of Shibata Zeshin (柴田是真 1807-91)
Yoshitame (芳為)
Yoshitani (芳谷)
Yoshitatsu (芳辰)
Yoshiteru (芳照 act. 1850-90)
Yoshiteru (芳輝 1808-91)
Yoshitomi (芳富 act. c. beginning Meiji period)
Yoshitora (芳虎 act. c. 1830-1870)
Yoshitori-jo (芳鳥女 also signed Kuniyoshi musume 國芳女, musume Tori 女登里, Tori-jô 登理女 1797-1861 female)
Yoshitoshi (芳年 1839-92)
Yoshitoyo (芳豊 1830-66), Edo artist who also studied with Utagawa Kunisada I
Yoshitoyo (芳豊 died 1862, act. c. 1851–58; : Hokusui 北粋, 北翠, 北醉, 北粹, Gansuitei 含醉亭) Osaka artist
Yoshitsuna (芳綱 act. c. end Edo period or c. 1848-64?)
Yoshitsuru I (芳鶴 also written 芳霍 1789-1846)
Yoshitsuya I (芳艶 1822-66)
Yoshiume (芳梅 1819–79, act. c. 1841–50s; surname: Nakajima 中島; : Ichiôsai (一鶯齋), Yabairô (夜梅樓) Osaka artist
Yoshiyuki (芳雪, also written 蕙雪, act. c. 1850s - 1860s; : Ichireisai 一嶺齋)
Yoshizane (芳真)

The information provided here about Utagawa Kuniyoshi was based on John Fiorillo's web page: