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The Utagawa School

Item # 64190 - Chivalrous Man - Kabuki - Sold for $180 - 4/5/2015
"Mitate Gonin Otoko" (Five Chivalrous Men Alluded). Kabuki actor is in the role of chivalrous man, Nunobukuro Ichiemon. He is wearing a long sword and a shakuhachi flute.

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By Toyokuni Utagawa 1769-1825

The number of artists who worked under the Utagawa name or were part of the lineage of this group of printmakers is legion, and because the so-called Utagawa School almost single-handedly dominated the field at the most productive time in the history of ukiyo-e, it is no exaggeration to claim that the majority of surviving prints from the Tokugawa Period are Utagawa-related works.

Dominance of Utagawa Printmakers

While the names of some two hundred print artists are known for the entirety of the eighteenth century, it has been estimated that there were some four-hundred-fifty to five-hundred artists in the Utagawa School alone in the nineteenth century.

In addition to the prolific studios centered around those who directly used the Utagawa name, such as Toyokuni I, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi Utagawa, another set of artists, such as Hiroshige, Kunichika, Kyosai, Chikanobu, Yoshitoshi, and a number of Osaka printmakers, were Utagawa-trained and members of the lineage, but preferred to emphasize their independence by using different art names.

It is fair to say that those ukiyo-e printmakers who were not related to the Utagawa School in the nineteenth century were the exception, not the rule.

The Utagawa School - a Pestilence?

What one makes of this Utagawa School dominance in the nineteenth century depends largely on one's view of ukiyo-e.

For most of those who approach ukiyo-e as works of art, the Utagawa School was a disease that spread throughout and took over the body of ukiyo-e, introducing a figural stereotype that was inelegant, oversimplified in line and false in detail and posture, with a compositional style that was cluttered, seeking to hide the weaknesses of artistic handling in sheer busyness.

Jack Hillier writes of "the repellent Utagawa breed of squint-eyed, lantern-jawed creatures," while for James Michener, the swarm of "Kunis and Yoshis" was nothing less than a pestilence, filling not only the artistic field but also every bit of surface space on prints with "senseless clutter".

Even in their own time, the non-Utagawa School artist Katsushika Hokusai wrote a note of protest to his publisher about a block carver who kept giving his figures the repugnant, unrealistic Toyokuni nose. One might well wonder from all of this how the Utagawa School gained predominance in the field in the first place.

Prints for the Common People

Nevertheless, in the decades since Hillier and Michener wrote these comments, new appreciations of the Utagawa School and its artists have been made. First Kuniyoshi, then Yoshitoshi were rehabilitated back into master status, and in recent decades, Kunisada and Kunichika have also received more sensitive appraisals.

The "collector's mentality" that dominated early connoisseurship on ukiyo-e, in which rarer, older works were given preference, has not yet been entirely overcome, but as nineteenth century prints become increasingly scarce and in demand, they too have been given a closer, more appreciative examination.

But whatever one thinks of the aesthetic value of works by Utagawa School artists, there can be no doubt that the Utagawa was commercially the most successful lineage of artists in ukiyo-e history, taking full advantage of the nature of the woodblock print as commodity and satisfying mass audiences with their colorful, stylized prints.

The Lineage of Utagawa Printmakers

But what exactly do we mean when we say "Utagawa School"? Not a literal "school" of course, a place of learning open to applicants, though the training of artists was one function of the nineteenth century ukiyo-e studio, into which promising young artists were admitted as apprentices.

And not really a single, comprehensive style either, in the art historical sense of "school", though the Utagawa artists do share some traits in common, particularly in rendering figures.

I have preferred the word "lineage" in the caption, as "school" tends to be somewhat misleading in both of these senses. For just as there were multiple Utagawa studios in the nineteenth century, with different emphases on style, subject and approach, there were also multiple Utagawa styles, and even within a single studio styles developed and transformed over time.

Phrases like "Utagawa School" or "Utagawa style" thus always need to be qualified with a particular artist or time frame. The word "lineage", which allows for branches and relationships, but not necessarily unity, is more appropriate for discussing the Utagawa artists as a whole.

Masters and Pupils

Nevertheless, so long as we retain its broad meaning, "School" does seem a particularly apropos designation for the Utagawa line in the nineteenth century. For with the Utagawas, the role of the studio becomes more important at any other time in ukiyo-e history.

Quite simply put, the number of designs that were published in single sheets, books and paintings under the names Toyokuni, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi is so vast, and their output so quick, that it is now a common assumption that the studios of these artists played an important role in the preparation of designs.

At times, the presence of a pupil's input is recognized on a print, with a small signature on a background or inset design, but in fact the role of pupils was likely much larger than this, and it is quite possible that advanced pupils actually created complete print designs, with the master's guidance and final approval, that appeared under his signature.

Such a practice would be entirely in keeping with the commercial nature of ukiyo-e printmaking and the status of certain printmakers as celebrities within the field of popular culture.


To some extent, we can see this collaborative studio process in the drawings and shita-e that have survived to the present, with rough sketches and more refined brush paintings, on different kinds of paper, with and without corrections.

Reading these drawings is always very difficult, for despite the attributions to particular artists, it is almost certain that many of these surviving drawings were the work of studio pupils.

The final design for a print, of course, was destroyed in the making, so any drawings that would remain are either preparatory sketches, extra copies of the final shita-e, or finalized designs for prints that, for one reason or another, were never made.

Among the preparatory sketches are pieces of such gross simplicity, with circles for heads and ovals for torsos and limbs, that they seem to me almost certain to be suggestions for general layout by a master to a pupil.

As to who produced the final shita-e, the question remains open, but curious in the series of sketches that remain are the corrections in red ink, which seem to me fairly certain to be the suggestions made by a master to a pupil (why would a master need to mark his own drawing in red?)

More research remains to be done in this area, but one reason for the vast success of the Utagawa School and its ability to support so many artists was the studio nature of printmaking in the nineteenth century.

Ironically, the focus on a limited number of celebrities as the great printmakers of the day actually increased their standing and sales, and so supported the pupils beneath them, who at the very least contributed to - and at the furthest extreme produced part of - their work.

Death of the Utagawa Line

The Utagawa was not the longest-lived lineage of ukiyo-e print designers - that claim to fame goes to the Torii School, which was connected with the kabuki theater from the seventeenth century and continued making prints and paintings in that field well into the twentieth.

The Utagawa line, on the other hand, intimately related to the changing fashions of the floating world, and lacking a stable base of tradition like the Torii's to fall back on, essentially died out (despite some claims of modern artists to a link) when the functions of ukiyo-e were taken over by photography and lithography.

The death of the Utagawa line is thus linked with the demise of ukiyo-e as a form of popular culture, the splitting of the functions of the traditional woodblock print into the modern art print, on the one hand, and the rise of modern versions of mass media on the other.

But the Utagawa line, lasting for over a century, and dominating the field of ukiyo-e for most of this time, must be recognized as unquestionably the most successful school of printmakers commercially, defining the field of printmaking in the nineteenth century, and enhancing the place of ukiyo-e as popular culture.

Dan McKee
Edited by Dieter Wanczura