Kuniyoshi Utagawa is one of the outstanding Ukiyo-e artists of the late Edo period in the 19th century. He was born in Edo (Tokyo) in 1797 - when Europe was still under the influence of the shock waves of the French revolution.
Information about the childhood of Kuniyoshi is a bit in the mist. His father was a silk-dyer and the given name of the boy was Yoshisaburo.
The young Yoshisaburo apparently developed a passion for drawing at a very early age. At the age of 14, he joined the famous Utagawa school, then headed by the great master Toyokuni Utagawa (1769 - 1825). According to other sources, he had been trained by Katsukawa Shuntei before.
Toyokuni gave his talented student Yoshisaburo the name Kuniyoshi. At that time it was the habit, that a student who had entered an art school, received a new artist name that was connected to the master's name. The name was created from the ending kuni of Toyokuni and the beginning of the boy's name Yoshisaburo.
After having left the Utagawa School, he had a tough time to make a living as an ukiyo-e artist. He was even forced to earn his living by repairing and selling floor-mats.
Kuniyoshi achieved his commercial and artistic breakthrough in 1827 with the first 6 designs of the series The 108 heroes of the Suikoden. The series was about 108 rebels and honorary bandits, based on an old Chinese novel from the 14th century. The story was very popular in Japan.
The artist continued with this pattern of success and concentrated on print subjects of warriors and heroes. He was even nicknamed Warrior print Kuniyoshi.
After being financially settled, he turned to other subjects - ghost stories, comic prints, landscapes, beautiful women and actor prints. The artist also tried his luck with another subject, natural life prints, showing animals like birds, fish and cats. This kind of new subjects, like the landscape prints, had been made popular by Ando Hiroshige before - against all odds.
Since the early 1840s, Kuniyoshi prints show some influence of Western style painting and printmaking. The artist possessed a collection of Western engraving prints. He admired them as much as the European Impressionist artists would admire Japanese woodblock prints later. Western influence can be found in Kuniyoshi prints in several ways: the use of the Western perspective, the way he designed clouds and the way he tried to show the effects of light and shadow.
In the 1840s and 1850s, Japan was in the final phase of a long era of peace and relative prosperity under the Shogunate rule. However the price that had to be paid, was a strict and oppressive rule that controlled even the most trivial things of everyday's life. Kuniyoshi Utagawa was among the artists who quietly protested with satire and irony in his prints.
In 1843 the artist got into some serious trouble with the authorities and even came under investigation. In the end he got away with a fine and a reprimand, and the woodblocks for a satirical triptych were destroyed.
In contrast to his somewhat conceited and arrogant rival Kunisada Utagawa, Kuniyoshi was a rather down to earth, straight-forward man. Although very talented, he had to fight hard to make his way from a son of a silk-dyer to the top. But even after he "had made it", he remained a man with his feet on the ground. He always followed his convictions. When he did not like a publisher, he rejected commissions - no matter how lucrative they were.
The artist loved animals and especially cats. One of his students remembered, that there were always a dozen cats in his home. Cats can be found on quite a few of his prints - sometimes a bit hidden in a corner. Kuniyoshi prints with cats are highly coveted objects for today's collectors.
The artistic achievements of Kuniyoshi in his late years were hampered by a deteriorating health. He made few prints in his late years and critics do not count them among his best. But his school was still doing well. Among his students were two outstanding talents. They were Yoshitoshi Tsukioka and Yoshiiku. Both developed a bitter rivalry later. Kuniyoshi cared for his student Yoshitoshi as if he was his own son.
Kuniyoshi Utagawa died from the effects of a stroke on April 14 in 1861.
Inge Klompmakers, "Of brigands and bravery - Kuniyoshi's heroes of the Suikoden", Hotei Publishing, Leiden, Breestraat 113, 2311 CL Leiden, The Netherlands, 1998, ISBN 90-74822-08-8.
Author: Dieter Wanczura