Toyokuni Utagawa was one of the great printmakers of the late 18th century who made himself known by his ukiyo-e of beautiful women and later of actors. As the head of the Utagawa school he was also the most influential man on the next generation of ukiyo-e designers.
Toyokuni was born as the son of a puppet maker. He learned printmaking as a student of Toyoharu. At the beginning of his career he concentrated on bijin-ga - images of beautiful women. His early works were influenced by Kiyonaga and Shigemasa.
Toyokuni's success and fame came when he started making actor portraits and actor scenes. The kabuki theaters were very crowded at that time and the best known actors were a kind of public icons. Consequently prints related to Kabuki were a hot business.
Demand came from the theaters - for advertising material - and from the fans - in form of actor portraits. The production of actor portraits was like today's publication of celebrity posters.
When the demand for actor prints grew faster than the master could design, the great moment of the Utagawa School had come. An ever increasing number of students produced actor prints and book illustrations. The Utagawa School was buzzing with commissions.
The Utagawa School flourished so well, that Toyokuni Utagawa is sometimes mentioned as the founder of the Utagawa School. The founder was actually Toyoharu. But Toyokuni was the one who made it big and who went into mass production. The comparison may be a bit daring. But basically the Utagawa School was something like the Andy Warhol factory of the Pop Art culture - at least in commercial terms.
After the death of Toyokuni in 1825, two of his pupils rivaled about who had the right to become his successor - the conceited Kunisada, who considered himself the greatest on earth anyway, and Toyoshige, a mediocre printmaker who had the advantage of having married the deceased master's daughter.
The row about the succession to Toyokuni as the head of the Utagawa School was fought on arguments who was the best ukiyo-e designer. But that was an argument on the surface. The real fight was about who got control of a flourishing business company - the Utagawa School.
Toyoshige won the fight but died in 1835. From 1844 on Kunisada called himself Toyokuni. In today's literature Kunisada is referred to as Toyokuni III, Toyoshige as Toyokuni II and the master as Toyokuni I.
By the way, most of today's art critics think that Kuniyoshi was the best of Toyokuni's students and not Kunisada. But that is a different story.
Author: Dieter Wanczura