Artist: Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900)

Titles: Left: Eitai Bridge, with a Portrait of the Actor Kawarazaki Mimasu in the Role of Kozaru Shichinosuke Right: Ichimura Uzaemon as Carpenter

Year: 1865

Medium: Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper

Gift of Tom Musco

I discovered Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900) to be the artist behind my attribution challenge. The expressive facial features and dramatic, suspended postures denote the subjects of these prints as kabuki actors. Kabuki theater constituted a central motif in Kunichika’s oeuvre, and these two prints represent his prodigious output of full-color actor prints as the foremost designer of the genre during the Meiji period.The theatrical mode of performance known as kabuki emerged in the seventeenth century in Japan, and by the latter half of that same century, printed kabuki portraits followed, sold as souvenirs and functioning also as advertisements to potential audiences throughout Edo.

These two works are from the broader series by the artist entitled Thirty-Six Views of the Eastern Capital of 1865, and the backgrounds are borrowed from Hiroshige’s 1839 landscape series of the same name. The print on the left is titled Eitai Bridge, with a Portrait of the Actor Kawarazaki Mimasu in the Role of Kozaru Shichinosuke; the print on the right is Ichimura Uzaemon as Carpenter. In each of these images, Kunichika presents the pictorial protagonists in his signature “large head” views (ōkubi-e), or half- and three-quarter length portraits.

Kunichika apprenticed with Utagawa Kunisada at the age of thirteen following some preliminary time spent in the studio of the artist Toyohara Chikanobu. Kunichika’s first confirmed print derives from 1854, and his mature works first emerge in the early 1860s. Both Kunichika and Kunisada loomed large in the genre of theatrical prints; another major theatrical series by Kunichika is100 Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro.

Intriguingly, Kunichika counts among the array of artists selected by the Tokugawa shogunate to produce and contribute works for display in the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris; this installation marked the first formal presentation of Japanese art in a world exposition.

—Ramey Mize

Works Cited

Amy Reigle Newland, Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master, Toyohara Kunichika 18351900 (Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 1999).