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Biography: Tsukioka YOSHITOSHI (月岡芳年)

Photo of Yoshitoshi
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
Photograph at age 43 (c. 1882)

Yoshitoshi signature 1865 Yoshitoshi signature 1888
(Early signature from 1865 ("Yoshitoshi hitsu" with "Tsukioka" seal) Late signature from 1888 ("Yoshitoshi ga"
with "Taiso" seal)

Yoshitoshi 1888 upper-class wife strollingTsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年 1839–1892) is often called the last great master of ukiyo-e. Gifted, imaginative, and innovative, Yoshitoshi worked from the end of the Edo period until more than two decades into the Meiji period over the course of a 40-year career. He witnessed the collapse of the old feudal order and the embrace of Western culture and technology, which had a profound effect on Japanese society beginning with the signing of treaties opening up Japan to foreign trade in 1854. One senses this turmoil in much of Yoshitoshi's oeuvre as he sought to maintain previous cultural norms and artistic aims while also assimilating some of the new aspects of "enlightenment."

Yoshitoshi was the son of a wealthy merchant named Owariya Kinzaburô (1815-1863) who was able to buy himself a position in the family of the samurai Yoshioka Hyôbu (1796-1855), which granted his children the use of the Yoshioka surname. In 1850, when Yoshitoshi was 11 years old, he was apprenticed to Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861 歌川國芳), who emphasized drawing from life. This mode of art was still unusual in Japanese painting academies and ateliers where capturing the essence of a subject was more highly prized than the "realism" found in Western art. Yoshitoshi also familiarized himself with Western drawing techniques, such as chiaroscuro and linear perspective, by studying Kuniyoshi’s collection of foreign prints and engravings. It appears that Yoshitoshi also studied for a time with the painter Kikuchi Yôsai (菊池容斎 1781-1878), who had trained in Kanô, Shijô, and Maruyama styles, passing some of that knowledge on to the younger artist who then developed his own eclectic manner.

Yoshitoshi's first published woodcut was a triptych in 6/1853 titled Bunji gannen Heike ichimon horobi kaichû ni ochiiru zu (In the first year of the Bunji era [1185], the Heike clan fell into the sea and perished: 文治元年平家の一門亡海中落入る圖) portraying the defeat of the Heike (Taira) by the Genji (Minamoto) at the battle of Dannoura. Issued when he was only 14 years of age (15 by Japanese reckoning), the design displays remarkable maturity and sure-handedness for a young teenager, even if derivative of his teacher Kuniyoshi's late triptychs. There is then a gap of about five years before the next known datable work, a triptych titled Edo no hana kodomo asobi no zu (Flowers of Edo: a view of children's games: 江戸の花子供遊の圖) issued in 1858.

Yoshitoshi produced few prints during the first eight years of his career, but in 1862 at least 44 designs were published, and during the next two years another 63 designs, mostly kabuki prints. It so happened that many of his prints in the 1860s were depictions of graphic violence and death (so-called chimamiri-e or "blood-stained pictures": 血塗絵). Some scholars link the death of Yoshitoshi's father Owariya Kinzaburô (1815-1863) with this subject matter; others suggest that growing lawlessness and violence during the final years of the Tokugawa feudal system also played a role.

In 1865, ninety-five more designs appeared, mostly on military and historical subjects. Between 1865 and 1868, Yoshitoshi continued to produce some very disturbing images, notably in two series: Kinsei kyôgiden (Biographies of modern men: 近世侠義伝), comprising 36 prints published by Iseki (Manyôdô) and carved by hori ôta Tashichi from 10/1865 to 4/1866; and Eimei nijûhasshûku (Twenty-eight famous murders with verses: 英名二十八衆句), published from 12/1866 to 5/1867 by Sanoya Tomigorô (Kinseidô), carved by hori ôta Tashichi and Matsushima hori Masa. Somewhat unfairly, Yoshitoshi was for several generations branded as a purveyor of violence whose oeuvre was essentially decadent. That critical assessment has been corrected over the last forty or so years, in no small part due to the scholarship of Roger Keyes (1942-2020).

At the start of the 1870s, print sales slowed and Yoshitoshi began to exhibit signs of severe depression, which may have led to a complete mental breakdown in 1872. However, by 1873 he seemed to recover, changing his art pseudonym from "Ikkaisai" (一魁齋) to "Taiso" ("Great Resurrection": 大蘇). Around this time he produced nishiki-e shinbun (color-picture newspapers: 錦絵新聞) for the so-called nichinichi shinbun (daily newspapers: 日々新聞 actually issued from every few days to once every month or two).

During the 1880s, Yoshitoshi produced many of his finest works, both as single designs and in series. This was also a decade during which the woodblock print as an art form was slowly dying as Japan modernized and began to adopt Western forms of image-making, including lithography. Nevertheless, Yoshitoshi continued to insist on the highest standards of woodblock carving and printing, which some critics have asserted helped save ukiyo-e from oblivion, at least temporarily. Included among his late masterpieces were a number of very fine triptychs, foremost among them Fujiwara no Yasumasa gekka rôteki zu (Fujiwara no Yasumasa playing flute by moonlight: 藤原保昌月下弄笛図) from 1883.

Yoshitoshi's important late work included Fûzoku sanjûnisô (Thirty-two aspects of daily life: 風俗三十二相) of 1888, a remarkable set that featured portrayals of beauties from different social classes. An example from this group is shown at the top right, the final design from 6/1888 titled Sanpogashitasô Meiji nenkan saikun no fûzoku (Strolling — the appearance of an upper-class wife of the Meiji era). His creative imagination was given full reign in yet another series, Tsuki hyakushi (100 aspects of the moon: 月百姿), published from 10/1885 to 12/1891, in which a startling range of subjects and moods prevailed. Not to be ignored was the fine Shingata sanjûrokkaisen (New forms of thirty-six ghosts: 新形 三十六怪撰) of 1889–1892.

In his final year or two, Yoshitoshi's mental problems recurred as he suffered from delusions while his physical condition deteriorated. He died on June 9, 1892 from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of fifty-three. A stone memorial monument to Yoshitoshi was erected by many of his pupils in Mukojima Hyakkaen garden, Tokyo, in 1898.

Yoshitoshi was arguably the finest ukiyo-e print designer of the late nineteenth century. His figures were vividly realized and invested with a realism that relied, not insignificantly, on superb drawing ability. As he broke away from stagnating convention, Yoshitoshi's imagination found expression in many subjects: history, folklore, legend, warrior tales, women, daily life, and old and new customs. He was uniquely gifted as a visual artist and a connoisseur of stories about Japanese and Chinese history and legend. By bridging the transition from the feudal society of the Edo period to the enlightenment restoration of the Meiji period, he succeeded in revitalizing ukiyo-e in unexpected ways.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's Names

Toshikage memorial print of Yoshitoshi 1892Surnames:
Owariya (surname of his father Kinzaburô 金三郎 1815-1863 not used in signatures)
Yoshioka (吉岡 after his father purchased a position in the Yoshioka samurai family
Tsukioka (月岡 used occasionally c. 1865 until c. 1875)
Taiso (大蘇 "Great Resurrection"; used exclusively after 1873)

Personal Name (jinmei):
Yonejirô (米次郎)

Art Names (geimei):
Yoshitoshi (芳年)

Art Pseudonyms ():
Ikkaisai (ー魁さ齋 first appeared in c. 1853)
Kaisai (魁齋)
Gyokuôrô (玉桜楼 or Gyokuô 玉桜 used between c. 1859 and c. 1861)
Sokatei (咀華亭)

Pupils of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Yoshitoshi had an enormous number of pupils. For some, usually younger pupils, he provided boarding; for others, usually older pupils, he welcomed their visiting periodically. Still others were daily visitors to his studio. One of his pupils, Yamanaka Kodô (山中古洞 1869-1945), wrote a episodic, meandering biography of his master (Yoshitoshi nishiki-e nenpyô, "Chronology of Yoshitoshi's color woodblock prints," serialized in Ukiyo-e shi, "Ukiyo-e Magazine," nos. 11-12, 1929) in which he claimed that Yoshitoshi had more than 200 students in the mid-1880s, and that he bestowed upon at least 60 of them [Keyes, Courage and Silence (dissertation), 1983, p. 535]. It appears that all artists of the late nineteenth century whose names begin with the character for "Toshi" (年) were his pupils.

The following list of about 40 students is not meant to be definitive, but simply to provide some idea of the extent of Yoshitoshi's involvement in tutoring artists. Some of the identifications are tentative, as are a few of the Japanese characters, as various sources differ. The order given below is by geimei (art names, i.e., not the "prefixes").

Kobayashi Eitaku (小林永濯 1843-1890; other Sensai 鮮齋, Issensai 一鮮齋, Baikodô 梅花堂, Kadô 霞堂, Mugyo 夢魚)
Kasai Hôsai (笠井鳳齋 student in 1880s)
Takeuchi Keishû (武内桂舟 1861-1943)
Yamanaka Kodô (山中古洞 1869-1945; also Tatsushige 辰重) and Tatsujû; pupil in the 1880s)
Tsukioka Kôgyo (月岡耕漁 1869-1927; also Tsukioka Toshihisa 月岡年之)
Saitô Nengyo (齋藤年魚 student in 1880s)
Nishii Nenka (西井年寛 student in 1880s)
Ozaki Nenka (尾崎年華 also Chôsai 晁斎, Sanyô 三容)
Nishii Nenkan (西井年寛 pupil in 1880s, also studied with Mori Kansai, later geimei Kinsai)
Hanawa Nenkô (花輪年香 named as deceased on Yoshitoshi memorial of 1892)
Katsura Nenkyo (桂年擧 died c. 1897; earlier geimei Tsunehide and later Gyokuto)
Tominaga Toshichika (富永年親 1847-c. 1887)
Nozaka Toshiharu (野阪年晴 1843-? an early pupil)
Migata Toshihide (右田年英 1862(3)-1925 pupil from 1884, Gosai 梧斎, Ichieisai 一潁斎, Bansuirô 晩翠楼)
Toshihiro (年廣 an early pupil)
Kanaki Toshikage (金木年景 act. c. 1868-1892; known for 6/1892 memorial portrait of Yoshitoshi, above right)
Mizuno Toshikata (水野年方 1866-1908; other ôsai 応斉 Shôsetsu 蕉雪)
Hosoki Toshikazu (細木年一   act. c. 1877-1879; other Seisai)
Fuse Toshimaro (布施年麿 Yoshitoshi's first pupil in 1860)
Fukushima Toshimaru (福島年丸 personal name Seijirô 清次郎; pupil in the 1880s)
Utagawa Toshimasa (歌川年昌 act. c. 1890s, Shunsai 春齋 pupil until 5/1890, then studied with Utagawa Kunitama [Hôsai])
Tsutsui Toshimine (筒井年峰 1863- until or after 1934?)
Kobayashi Toshimitsu (小林年光 act. c. 1876-1904; geimei Toshichika 年家 Teisai 亭齋, Kôsai 高齋 and Shinsai 進斉 an early pupil)
Suzuki Toshimoto (鈴木年基 [also 鈴樹年基] act. c. 1877-c. 1890s)
Utagawa Yoshimune II (歌川芳宗 1863-1941; early art name Arai Toshiyuki 新井年雪, Isshôsai; became student c. 1876)
Inagaki Toshinao (稲垣年直 pupil in 1870s)
Shibata Toshindo (柴田年人 personal name Nobuko のぶ子 younger sister of artist Tanba Reizan, wife of painter Shibata Hôshû)
Kifuji Toshinobu (木藤年延 probably an early student)
Shirai Toshinobu II (白井年信 1866-1903; other geimei Kuniume 国梅 Shûsai 修斉)
Yamazaki Toshinobu I (山崎年信 1857-1886; other Sensai 仙斎, Nansai 南斎, Goen 呉園, Fusoen 扶桑園 pupil in 1870s)
Yamada Toshisada (山田年貞)
Yamada Toshitada (山田年忠 1868-1934; geimei Toshinaka 年中, Keichû 敬中, Shimane 島根, Nansai 南齋, Nanshi 南志, Katoku 可得)
Fuse Toshitaka (布施年鷹)
Ozaki Toshitane (尾崎年種 act. c. 1882-1897; other Gyokkyaku 玉客)
Toshitoyo (年豊 early pupil)
Nakayama Toshitsugu (中山年次 1840-1900 an early pupil)
Inano Toshitsune (稲野年恒 1859-1907 pupil in 1870s, later studied with painter Kôno Barei)
Fujishima Toshiyoshi (藤島年美 student in c. 1870s, again in 1880s; later geimei Eiryû 永柳 and Kasen 華僊)
Arai Toshiyuki (新井年雪 pupil at age 12 in 11/1881; Isshôsai 一松斉, later name Yoshimune II 芳宗)

The information on this page was based on John Fiorillo's Tsukioka Yoshitoshi web page: