Treasures from the Vault: Utagawa Kunisada

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s collection consists largely of American art, however, it also includes a small number of Japanese woodblock prints, primarily by Utagawa Kunisada and Utagawa Hiroshige. Ukiyo-e, literally meaning pictures from the floating world in Japanese, blossomed in the form of paintings, screens, illustrated books, and especially colorful woodblock prints, during the Edo period (1615-1868).   

Sumida Shōzō was born in Honjo Itsutsume, Japan in 1786. He entered the studio of Utagawa Toyokuni I at the age of fifteen or sixteen. The Utagawa school’s long history dates to the late 1760s when it was founded by Utagawa Toyoharu, and its artistic legacy continued to dominate the ukiyo-e genre for 100 years. Its some 500 students working under the Utagawa name lay claim to probably half of existing prints.   

Initially, the young apprentice collaborated with Toyokuni, but his talents were quickly recognized and his first illustrations under his own name were published in 1807. He earned the professional name Kunisada, a reference to his master’s name; it was traditional for a student to adopt part of the teacher’s name for his own.   

In 1844, Kunisada assumed the name Toyokuni II to assert himself as successor to the Utagawa School lineage even though another student, Toyoshige, made the same claim after their teacher’s death in 1825. Kunisada’s name change is noted in the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s print (below) of the same year. 

A Japanese woman wearing an ornate kimono with flowers holds forth a dish and cup.
Utagawa Kunisada, Japanese, 1786-1864. Announcement of the Artist’s Name Change: On the Seventh Day of the First Month. Color woodblock print on paper, 1844. Gift of Ora Brant, 1965.67 

While Kunisada continued to use the name, today he is also known as Toyokuni III. The artist used a variety of signatures throughout his career, which can help in dating his prints. Early on he used the go (artist’s name) Toyokuni Monjin, meaning Toyokuni’s student. He has also used Utagawa, Ichiyusai, Kinraisha, Kochoro, and later Gototei in conjunction with the name Kunisada. Name changes sometimes corresponded with life changes, whether it was inheriting his father’s business or entering the school of another artist. Adding to the complexity for Western audiences is the customary Japanese name order, with the surname, or family name, preceding the personal, or given name.   

The primary inspiration of ukiyo-e was the urban leisure district, where one could find ephemeral pleasures like kabuki theater, teahouses, restaurants, and street entertainment. Kunisada became known for portraits of popular kabuki actors offered prior to performances as he skillfully captured their individualized likenesses. Kunisada’s images of women reveals notions of feminine beauty and fashion trends in kimono patterns, hairstyles, ornaments, and make-up in mid-19th century Japan.   

The Tale of Genji was written by Lady Murasaki in the first decade of the 11th century, and is one of the most famous pieces of Japanese literature. In the 19th century Ryūtei Tanehiko wrote a serial adaptation of the story with illustrations in woodblock prints by Kunisada. The novel became a bestseller and from 1838 to 1898 there were 1,300 Genji design prints published. Kunisada created more Genji-inspired prints than other ukiyo-e artist!  

The series Lingering Sentiments of a Late Collection of Genji follows Tanehiko’s story. It involved four publishers and was created from 1857 to 1861. Otome (below) is the right panel of a diptych from chapter 31. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, owns both panels of the diptych and it can be seen in its entirety on their website. The right panel showcases one of Kunisada’s beautiful women clothed in a luxurious kimono patterned with irises and water that seems to merge with the design on the screen behind her. The mandarin ducks that peek out behind her are a symbol of marriage. The background is equally lavish with square flecks printed in yellow and brown to emulate the gold and silver leaf that was popular in paintings. Subtle embossing of nested rectangles forms the design of a crest (or mon). A unique mon identifies each chapter of the story.   

This print showcases one of Kunisada’s beautiful women clothed in a luxurious kimono patterned with irises and water that seems to merge with the design on the screen behind her. The mandarin ducks that peek out behind her are a symbol of marriage. The background is equally lavish with square flecks printed in yellow and brown to emulate the gold and silver leaf that was popular in paintings. Subtle embossing of nested rectangles forms the design of a crest (or mon).
Utagawa Kunisada, Japanese, 1786-1864. Otome, from Lingering Sentiments of a Late Collection of Genji . Color woodblock print on paper, 1857. Gift of an unknown donor, 1979.31 

Three great ukiyo-e artists of the Utagawa school in the late Edo period include Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and Utagawa Kunisada. Collaborative prints combining the talents of more than one well-known artist was a smart marketing ploy. Utagawa school artists Kunisada and Hiroshige brought together their individual specialties in a series cleverly named The Fifty-three Stations (of the Tōkaidō) by Two Brushes. For the eighth station on the Tōkaidō road, known as Hiratsuka, Kunisada created the two figures serving refreshments in the foreground. Hiroshige, who is best known for his landscape prints, provided the scenic view of the Banyū River. The artists’ signatures are placed in proximity to their contributions to the composition.  

A woodblock print done by two artists, in the foreground are servers carrying trays for serving tea. In the background, a lush mountain rises high into the sky with boaters in the blue waters below.
Utagawa Hiroshige, Japanese, 1797-1858 and Utagawa Kunisada, Japanese, 1786-1865. Hiratsuka: Ferry at the Banyū River; Serving Women at an Inn with Food, from The Fifty-three Stations (of the Tōkaidō) by Two Brushes. Color woodblock print, 1854. Gift of Mrs. Ora Brant, 1965.71   

Rough estimates for the number of Kunisada designed works are in the range of 20,000-35,000. The creation of a woodblock print was divided up amongst masters: the artist drew the designs in ink that were passed along to wood carvers and printers who were all overseen by a publisher. Thousands of prints could be sold before the wooden blocks were too worn to use.   

Want to see the prints in person? Stop by the Print & Drawing Study Center at FWMoA Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm, or by appointment!

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