Calligraphy and Umbrella
Calligraphy and Umbrella - By Keisai Eisen
By Keisai Eisen
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Along with Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, Eisen is considered one of the leading artists of ukiyo-e's "decadent" period.

Keisai Eisen is also found under the name of Ikeda Eisen.

First Publication: May 2004
Latest Update: April 2014

Specialized in Bijin

Whereas Kunisada, as the head of the Utagawa School, came to specialize in kabuki prints, and Kuniyoshi in warriors, Eisen's area of expertise was said to be prints of beautiful women (bijin).

In fact, however, like all three artists, he produced a number of prints in a variety of genres.

Like these artists too, he is said to have suffered from the overproduction of ukiyo-e in the nineteenth century, with pressures to produce new works quickly leading to a large but uneven oeuvre.

Nevertheless, the finest pieces of Eisen are striking and highly original art works, often more highly valued than those of his contemporaries.

In spite of this, there have been fewer books and exhibitions devoted to his work than to Kunisada or Kuniyoshi.

The Way of the Brush

ca. 1820/30
ca. 1820/30 - Keisei Gokenjin - Beauty Yatsuhashi
Keisei Gokenjin - Beauty Yatsuhashi
By Keisai Eisen
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Eisen was born and raised in Edo, a true child of the city. His father was a noted calligrapher and poet, and apparently taught the young Zenjiro (Eisen's childhood name) the way of the brush. At an early age, Eisen was apprenticed to a Kano style painting master, Hakkeisai (fl. late 1700s-early 1800s), suggesting his father's high aspirations for him.

Voluptuous Beauties

Eisen, soon after his father's death, sought the tutelage of the leading bijin master of the day, Kikugawa Eizan, under whom he trained as an ukiyo-e artist. After some initial publications, much in his master's romanticized style, Eisen seems to have found his own approach in the early 1820s.

His works are known for a certain voluptuousness and ripe sensuality, his figures lacking much of the grace and elegance of earlier bijin prints, but emphasizing in their place worldliness and a less disguised or mediated sexuality. These impressions are all the more confirmed in his erotic prints, which have a heavy, musky scent quite unlike previous works in this field.

Notes of a Nameless Old Man

By Keisai Eisen
By Keisai Eisen - Girl in Blue, 1834/35
Girl in Blue, 1834/35
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Although frequently described as dissolute, Eisen was in fact a highly literate man, writing under the name Ippitsuan, though he prided himself, as an Edoite, on a devil-may-care floating world sensibility, focused on living for the sensory pleasures of the moment.

The moralistic, negative judgments about his character in early writings on ukiyo-e actually derive from Eisen's own account of his life in his "Notes of a Nameless Old Man" in which he describes himself as a reckless drinker and frequenter of the Yoshiwara (the prostitute quarter).

Keisai Eisen - an Intellectual?

Though there may be a grain of truth to the adventures he describes, Eisen was also a prolific artist and writer, far more disciplined and striving than the legend he sought to create about his life suggests.

He researched and wrote, for example, the biographies on Kuniyoshi's series of the forty-seven ronin, as well as several books, including a continuation of the Ukiyo-e Ruiko, and had connections with some of the leading kyoka poets of the day. He was thus more involved in intellectual circles than any of his ukiyo-e contemporaries, with the exception of Hokusai.

Bijin Awase

Eisen produced an incredible number of series of beautiful woman prints, as well as erotica, some important and original landscape sets, surimono and a number of humorous prints or giga, the best of them emphasizing children.

Some of his notable bijin series include:

  • Imayo bijin junikei (Twelve Views of Contemporary Style Beauties; featuring bust figures with landscapes in scrolls above).
  • Tosei kobutsu hakkei (Eight Views of Modern Day Favorites; featuring bust portraits with favorite objects above).
  • Ukiyo fuzoku bijo kurabe (Floating World Genre Scenes: A Comparison of Beautiful Women, featuring bust portraits with phrases in square cartouches above).
  • Tosei kaiseki tsuzuki (Modern Day Restaurants; featuring bust portraits with landscapes in rectangular cartouches).
  • Bijin awase (A Collection of Beauties; featuring standing beauties and a jagged title cartouche).
  • Seiro nanakanjin (Women of Seven Houses; featuring standing beauties with the noren of the Yoshiwara house).
  • Bien sennyoko (a series of advertising prints for a face powder; featuring bust portraits with insets in cartouches with a Chinese tile pattern).

Keisai Eisen - a Prolific Ukiyo-e Artist

Eisen cannot avoid the charge of overproduction, and the appearance of his name on an ukiyo-e print is far less a guarantee of greatness than is the case with earlier masters.

Nevertheless, among his uneven output are prints of stunning beauty and high quality. Particularly striking are his large head and close up bust portraits, though a number of his standing portraits are also excellent.

His landscape prints are widely accepted as some of the most unique work in this field and are highly valued. His surimono and giga are also fine, and make a striking contrast with his bijin work and erotica, revealing the many sides of Eisen's character.

Author: Dan McKee
Edited by Dieter Wanczura

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