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Kunisada Utagawa - 1786-1865

Item # 68210 - Honor of Japan in the Provinces - Koku Zukushi Yamato Meiyo - Nagato Province - Sold for $200 - 3/10/2016
From the series, "Kokuzukushi Yamato Meiyo" (Honor of Japan in the Provinces Collected). No. 51. Nagato Province. The left inset was done by Kunisada's pupil. Kabuki actor Nakamura Utaemon IV is in the role of dying Heike general Tomomori.
By Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1865

During his lifetime Kunisada Utagawa was considered to be the best print designer by his contemporaries. He was more popular than Hiroshige, Hokusai or Kuniyoshi. And Kunisada was extremely productive. His total output is estimated at more than 20,000 designs, many made by his students.

Student of Toyokuni I

Kunisada was born near Edo (today Tokyo) as the son of an affluent merchant with a ferry boat license. At the age of fifteen he joined the famous art school of Utagawa Toyokuni and took the name Kunisada.

Kunisada's Early Success

In 1807 the young artist produced his first illustrated book. And in 1808 his first actor prints were published. His fame grew fast. While other artists like Kuniyoshi Utagawa or Hiroshige had to fight for recognition for years, he was successful from the beginning. He should become the most commercially successful of all woodblock printmakers ever. His early success may not have had a good influence on his personality. He had a reputation for his conceited personality.

From Kunisada to Toyokuni

Kunisada designed a wide spectrum of traditional ukiyo-e subjects like kabuki themes, beautiful women, historical events and quite a few shunga prints. He made few landscapes.

In 1825 Toyokuni I had died. Later in 1844 Kunisada decided to take the name of his master and called himself Toyokuni. He is now known as Toyokuni III. The name of Toyokuni II was claimed by a lesser known and mediocre ukiyo-e artist, Toyoshige. He was the son-in-law of Toyokuni I and became the head of the Utagawa school after the death of his father-in-law. Toyoshige is now referred as Toyokuni II. Kunisada was outraged when Toyoshige was named head of the Utagawa school and not him.

The name changes of ukiyo-e artists can be annoying and confusing for a new collector. The following list may help.

Many of the prints signed by Kunisada Utagawa bear the preceding Gototei, Kochoro or Ichiyosai to his artist name Kunisada, respectively Toyokuni after 1844. In 1844/45 the artist signed many of his prints with "Kunisada changing to Toyokuni". In 1845 he retired officially and called himself Shozo. But that did not mean that he stopped printmaking.

Collaboration Works with Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi

Although there was some rivalry between Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, the two men designed and published a series of prints together. He also made some collaborative prints with Hiroshige I. In 1852 Kunisada designed the series Restaurants of Edo and in 1855 the series The Fifty-Three Stations from Two Brushes in collaboration with Hiroshige.

Kunisada also had a flourishing ukiyo-e school. The best of his students were Kunichika and Chikanobu who themselves became famous artists of the Japanese woodblock printmaking tradition.

Collecting Kunisada Prints

Item # 68212 - Dressing Rooms in the New Theater - 2 triptics - Sold for $1,500 - 4/14/2016
The upper level is titled , "Odori Keiyo Gakuya no Zu". The scene of back stage. The lower level is titled, "Odori Keiyo Nikai iri no Zu". The new opening of the kabuki theater. A very interesting snapshot of the lively and busy opening day.
Exceptional and rare design featuring two triptychs laid out vertically, each titled separately. The hexaptych was illustrated and described in "Kunisada's World" No.92 by Sebastian Izzard. The other impressions are in the permanent collections of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Bigelow Coll.), Ferenc Hopp Museum in Budapest.
By Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1865

The number of Kunisada prints is estimated at over 20,000 designs. His prints belong to those a collector will find on the art market frequently. Prices range in the middle to lower area starting as low as US$100.

Art critics see Kunisada prints with a laughing and a weeping eye. While some of his prints are ranked among the best masterpieces of ukiyo-e, many of his works are regarded as mediocre. The prices on the art market reflect this view. And therefore some highly esteemed or unusual and rare subjects can easily surpass the thousand dollar limit.

There are the usual speculations about the degree of involvement of the master in producing these roughly 20,000 designs. Judging from the fact that ukiyo-e was considered more a craft than fine art, it can be assumed that many of the Kunisada prints were created by his students with a loose supervision of the master.

This was in no way different from European painting schools of great masters. Durer or Rubens managed their workshops with at least a dozen students who were actively involved in the creation of an art work. And what is so wrong with it?

The idea that an art work is the result of a moment of divine intuition, is an invention of the art understanding of the twentieth century with its emphasis on creativity. The Japanese culture of the Edo period considered ukiyo-e as an art craft at the best.

Item # 62986 - Five Chivalrous Men - Sold for $500 - 1/1/2015
Complete set of "Gonin Otoko" (Five Chivalrous Men), each 245 x 360 mm, oban sheets. Although unnamed, the sheets reflect the individual portraits of the famous kabuki actors of the day. They are in the roles of street toughts, An no Heibei, Kaminari Shokuro, Hotei Ichiemon, Karigane Bunshichi and Gokuin Senemon.
By Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1865

More Kunisada Prints

Here are a few more examples of fine woodblock prints by Kunisada Utagawa.

Item # 55882 - On a Ferry Boat in Snow - Sold for $140 - 1/27/2013
Two beauties chatting each other under a large umbrella, a man and a kid are riding on a ferry boat. The snow is falling steadily on the river.
By Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1865
Item # 20028 - Samurai in the Snow - Sold for $100 - 4/23/2006
Kabuki actor is in the role of Kirare Yosa standing on a snow covered field.
By Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1865
Item # 49326 - Sumo - Champion Tsurugiyama - Sold for $100 - 6/12/2011
Sumo wrestler Tsurugiyama Taniemon.
By Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1865
Item # 43661 - Memorial Portrait - Shini-e - Sold for $120 - 2/28/2010
Memorial portraits of three kabuki actors, Ichikawa Danjuro VIII (right: died 32 years old, Aug.6, 1854). Bando Shuka II (left: died 43 years old, March 6, 1855). Arashi Otohachi III (left-top: died 59 years old, November 7, 1854).
By Kunisada Utagawa 1786-1865

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura