Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Utagawa Kunisada (1786 - 1865) (Japanese: 歌川国貞, known as Utagawa Tokokuni III 三代歌川豊国 later in his career) was in his own time was the most popular and successful woodblock print designer in Japan, ahead of Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige. His stock declined after he died, and has never recovered to the same levels, although he is still recognized as master of the woodblock print, just not a great one, and is now recovering in esteem somewhat.
He was born in Edo in 1786, and his father (who died a year after Kunisada was born) was an amateur poet of some note. After showing a prediliction for art (copying prints of Kabuki actors), he was accepted as an apprentice in around 1800 by one of the great masters of the Japanese woodblock print, Toyokuni, and became one of his chief pupils, being given the gō (art-name) of Kunisada at that point.
He started out doing actor prints, the initial specialty of the Utagawa school, but eventually branched out into bijin-ga , and even dabbled in landscapes, but although his early work in that area (in the 1830s) showed real promise, he never did many. He did do a fair amount of shunga, but narrowly escaped getting into serious trouble with the authorities as a result, when they cracked down in 1842.
At that point, Kunisada changed his art-name, taking the name of his master Toyokuni; he is now known as Toyokuni III (Toyokuni II being Toyoshige , a mediocre pupil who had taken over as head of the Utagawa school after Toyokuni died). Due to a dispute with Toyoshige, Kunisada signed many of his prints Toyokuni II, a source of confusion ever since.
He often collaborated with Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi on print series during the late 1840s and 1850s, when woodblock prints were the rage in Japan. During his lifetime, he produced a vast number of prints (estimated by some sources to be more than 20,000).
He outlasted his contemporaries (one of his best prints is a memorial print of his friend Hiroshige), and his last years were marked by something of a resurgence in quality, as he did series with more inspiration than some of his seemingly mass-produced work of his middle years.
He died in Edo (having made only one documented trip out of it in his whole life!) in 1865.
During his lifetime, he produced a staggering number of prints, so that even a partial list of his print series numbers more than 600. Here are some of his most important, with dates:
- Beauties of the Pleasure Quarter (1809)
- Great Hits of the Stage (1815-1816)
- A Collection of Famous Restaurants of Modern Times (circa 1820)
- The Imitation Murasaki and the Rustic Genji (1830's)
- The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido (circa 1838)
- Actors at the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido (1852)
- Views of Famous Places in Edo (1852)
- An Anthology of Important Places in Great Japan (1852)
- An Imaginary Thirty-Six Poets (1852)
- Restaurants of Edo (1852) (with Hiroshige)
- The Fifty-Three Stations [of the Tokaido] from Two Brushes (1855) (with Hiroshige)
- Famous Places in Edo and One Hundred Beautiful Women (1857)
- The Fifty-Four Chapters of Genji (1858-1859)
- Fashionable Mirror Reflections (1859)
- Famous Kabuki Actors Past and Present (1865 - issued posthumously)
- Sebastian Izzard, Kunisada's World (Japan Society, New York, 1993) is the best overall work on him
- Shigeru Shindo, (translated Yoko Moizumi, E.M. Carmichael), Kunisada: The Kabuki Actor Portraits (Graphic-Sha, Tokyo, 1993)
- Ellis Tinios, Mirror of the Stage: The Actor Prints of Kunisada (University Gallery, Leeds, 1996)
- Utagawa Kunisada Project has a list of his series, and images of many of his prints
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