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Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1797-1861

Item # 68565 - Heroes of Suikoden - Shishin, the Nine Dragons - Sold for $200 - 6/2/2016
"Tsuzoku Suikoden Goketsu Hyakuhachinin no Hitori" (One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told). Kyumonryu (nine dragons) Shishin (Shi-jin in Chinese). He was so nicknamed because of the nine-dragon tattoo on his back. He had enormous strength and was one of the great heroes in Suikoden. Here, he is battling with Chokanko (leaping tiger) Chintatsu (Chen Da in Chinese).
This Suikoden series contains the first single-sheet color prints by any ukiyo-e artists. It is one of the most popular Suikoden series, which made Kuniyoshi famous.
By Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1797-1861

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.

Student of the Utagawa School

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 and Warrior Prints

Item # 43439 - One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told - Sold for $650 - 1/24/2010
"Tsuzoku Suikoden Goketsu Hyaku-hachi-nin no Hitori" (One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told). Byokansaku Yoyo is about to murder his wife and her maid.
By Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1797-1861

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.

Experimenting with Western Style

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.

Kuniyoshi and Political Oppression

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.

The Straightforward Guy who liked Cats

Item # 53244 - Battle of Zoku-ga-Mine - Sold for $300 - 6/17/2012
"Zoku-ga-mine Kassen no Zu". The scene of the battle at Zoku-ga-mine in 1583. Hashiba Hideyoshi (later shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi) defeted Shibata Katsuie.
By Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1797-1861

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.

Kuniyoshi's Late Years

Item # 54395 - Stories of Chaste and Virtuous Women - Daughter of Yukinari and Cat - Sold for $200 - 9/2/2012
"Kenjo Reppu Den" ("Stories of Chaste and Virtuous Women"). "Dainagon Yukinari musume" ("Daughter of Dainagon Yukinari"). She was the wife of Ienaga and loved to draw pictures. One day, her pet cat jumped on the butterfly she drew and tore the paper.
By Kuniyoshi Utagawa 1797-1861

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.

Literature source used for this Kuniyoshi biography

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.

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura