Kikugawa Eizan was the most prolific, longest-lived and ultimately the best of the late followers of Utamaro, who attempted to carry on the master's bijin style after his death in 1806.
Along with Kikumaro, Tsukimaro and Utamaro II, Eizan has generally been dismissed by connoisseurs as a plagiarist of Utamaro's late style, but his work in fact develops, like that of most ukiyo-e artists, from a close identification with a leading master to a studied independence, and contains pieces of remarkable beauty and interest.
Unlike the artists with whom he is often associated, Eizan was not an actual pupil of Kitagawa Utamaro, but studied originally with his father, Kikugawa Eiji, a Kano style painter and fan maker, and later with the Shijo artist Suzuki Nanrei and the Hokusai pupil Hokkei. Few traces of this eclectic training can be seen in Eizan's early work, produced shortly after the death of Utamaro and for the most part in that master's style.
In the following decade, however, as Eizan reached artistic maturity, he began to develop his own figural style, still focused for the most part on prints of beautiful women (bijin-ga). Eizan's work retains the sensitivities and lyricism that marks the Utamaro style, however, not following the earthier realism and more overt sensuality of Kunisada and Ikeda Eisen in their bijin prints.
He seems to have retired from printmaking in the late 1820s, though he did contribute illustrations for books even quite late in his life.
Eizan seems to have been particularly fond of the appellation "furyu" ("elegant" or "stylish") for his bijin series, and many of them begin with this phrase, which I will leave untranslated. His major series include: Furyu bijin awase (Collected Beauties), Furyu gojo soroi (Five Cardinal Virtues), Furyu mu Tamagawa (Six Jewel Rivers), Furyu nana Komachi (Seven Komachi), Furyu bijin soroi (A Gathering of Beauties), Furyu bijin kodakara asobi (Beauties and Child Treasures in Play), and several more.
He also produced some remarkable triptychs and vertical diptychs, as well as a few surimono. For the most part, his prints were limited to the field of bijin work, though he did make a few experiments with actors, landscapes and animals, and children are featured in many of his bijin works.
Eizan, like Toyokuni I in actor prints, is the last manifestation of the classical ukiyo-e style in bijin work, with harmonious colors and graceful lines and subjects. After him, one senses the introduction of a different aesthetic, with harsher colors, angular lines and less ethereal material, more of an emphasis, in sum, on the material weight of earthly life, rather than its transformation into something of elegance.
With Eizan, the alchemy of elegance is still alive, and in his best work, properly produced, he can cast a magic glow over the forms of the world and create lightness and grace.
Dan McKee, May 2004
Edited by Dieter Wanczura