CHAPTER 5: SOME ACCOUNT OF THE ARTISTS OF THE
Kiyonobu to Utamaro.
THE total number of known colour-print artists, from the commencement of the school down to the Meiji period (1867), lies between six and seven hundred names. This large number includes artists of varying degrees of ability and productivity, and, considering the relatively short life of the school, gives us an idea of its wide popularity; but the number with which the collector need concern himself is considerably less than this total - a collection which contained examples by half this number would be a very large one.
The art is generally divided into three or four periods: (i) the Primitives, from the foundation of the school by MATABEI to the invention of the true polychrome print in the time of HARUNOBU (c. 1765); (ii) the second period, from 1765 to the death of UTAMARO in 1806; (iii) the third period, 1806-1825; and the fourth, the decline from 1825-1860. A fifth period, known as the downfall, from 1860 onwards, might be added; but the work of this period is so inferior that it hardly merits attention except, perhaps, from the historical point of view.
Of the above periods, the second and third represent the colour-print at its best, the first being mainly one of development. The fourth period, indeed, witnessed the advent of Hokusai and Hiroshige, who brought new life into Ukiyoye, and arrested its decline for a time, but their genius only threw into sharper relief the inferior work of most of their contemporaries.
It is not proposed in these pages to do more than give a brief summary of the principal artists such as are familiar to collectors, and with whose work they are most likely to become acquainted in the process of forming a collection. Fuller and more detailed historical accounts of them and their work are left to other volumes on Japanese prints, which deal with the subject from that point of view, whereas we are more concerned with the subjects they portrayed. Additional facts regarding them will be given when considering their work under the various subject-headings of theatrical prints, landscape, and figure studies. Some names, however, cannot be omitted even in a brief survey such as this on historical grounds, even though their prints are to-day very scarce, and but rarely met with. Other artists, again, confined themselves to illustrating books, a branch of print-designing somewhat outside our scope.
Amongst the Primitives, MATABEI and MORONOBU have already been mentioned. Then we come to Torii KIYONOBU (1664-1729), the founder of the Torii sub-school, a school which applied itself chiefly to theatrical subjects. He is said to have first been a designer of the large posters or signboards placed outside theatres, and also to have invented the style of scenery still in vogue on the Japanese stage.
KIYONOBU was followed by KIYOMASU (1679-1762), probably his younger brother, whose work to-day is rare.
The third head of the Torii school was KIYOMITSU (1735-1785), son of Kiyomasu. His work forms the connecting link between the two- and three-colour print; though he lived well into the polychrome period of Harunobu, practically all his work is of the former type, so that he must have ceased designing early in life. Like other Primitives, his prints are rare, and are in hoso-ye form, or as pillar-prints, of which latter he was one of the chief exponents. The beginner should perhaps be warned that Kiyomine, the fifth master of the Torii school, sometimes signed himself Kiyomitsu; but as he used the full palette of colours common at his time, and as his style is quite different, it is easy to distinguish his work from that of the original master.
A print by him, with this signature, is reproduced at Plate XXVHI in the handbook to the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, and the following plate shows a print by the first Kiyomitsu; these clearly show the different characteristics of these two artists.
Kiyomine's pupil and son, Kiyofusa, who died as recently as 1892, called himself the third Kiyomitsu on the death of his master in 1868; but no prints by him have come under observation, neither has the writer seen any mention of his work. The fourth of the name still lives at Tokyo.
Contemporary with the Torii school was the Okumura school, founded by Okumura MASANOBU (1685-1764), one of the most eminent of the early artists. He was at first a bookseller and publisher, and during his life as a colour-print artist used other names. Hogetsudo is, perhaps, the most frequent, in addition to that by which he is generally known. He is said to have invented the lacquer-print, in which lacquer is used to heighten the colours, and his prints are remarkable for the richness of effect produced with only the use of two colours in addition to the black of the outline block. These early two-colour prints are always in green and red, but the latter colour is liable to turn a yellowish tint in course of time. A two-colour print reproduced in Von Seidlitz's History of Japanese Colour-Prints at page 6 shows the effect produced by this change; while our Plate G, page 204, from a print by Kiyomasu (c. 1745), which has preserved its original tints to a remarkable degree, gives an excellent idea of the beauty and richness of effect which these early artists were able to produce with such simple means. Prints by MASANOBU are very scarce.
Ishikawa TOYONOBU (1711-1785) was another important artist of this period, whose later work carries us into the second period. It should be noted that there were two artists of this name, the second being Utagawa Toyonobu, said to have been a pupil of the first. As he died very young, his prints are extremely rare. It was his brother, Toyoharu, who founded the Utagawa sub-school. Another pupil of Ishikawa Toyonobu is Ishikawa TOYOMASA (worked 1770-1780), with whom the representation of children was a favourite subject. Toyonobu was also called SHUHA.
We now come to Suzuki HARUNOBU (c. 1725-1770 - the date of his birth being uncertain), pupil of the great Nishimura Shigenaga, who, by making full use of improvements at this time discovered in the art of colour-printing, brought into being the true polychrome print. He designed a few actor-prints in his youth, but shunned them as soon as he had reached his maturity, considering it a degradation of his art to apply it to the representation of a class which was held socially in such low esteem; instead he turned his brush to the portrayal of dainty women. Most of his prints are a small, almost square, half-plate size, and are the earliest examples in which a background is introduced.
Harunobu's prints fetch very high prices, as they are valued not only for their great beauty and charm and rarity (most of the best examples being in the great private collections or in museums), but because Harunobu marks a most important epoch in the history of Ukiyoye. He created a style which influenced all his contemporaries, and for a time put actor-prints, such as were the special province of the Torii school, practically out of fashion.
He found himself, therefore, not only closely imitated, but also forged. Harunobu only worked as a colour-print artist
about ten or twelve years. During the Meiwa period (1764-1771) there was a great demand by the public
for his prints, and after his death Shiba KOKAN (1747-1818) was employed by his publisher to imitate them. This he
did, usually not signing his productions, but sometimes signing them
Suzuki Harunobu. He also imitated
Harunobu over the signature of Harushige, thus pretending, by using the prefix
Ham, to be his pupil.
The avowed work of Kokan is very uncommon, and he is remarkable for his attempts at copper-plate engraving,
which he learnt from the Dutch.
Shiba Kokan wrote his memoirs, which were published after his death, and he therein boldly states that he had forged
many of the most popular prints signed
Harunobu. If Kokan could deceive the public of his day, it is
hardly to be expected that we shall be any cleverer in the twentieth century; but the collector may rest satisfied
with the thought that what was good enough to deceive the art-loving Japanese in 1765 is good enough for him, and
that Kokan must have been a consummate artist.
What the collector, however, should be on his guard against are modern forgeries of Harunobu, who is one of the few artists who have been forged or reproduced during the last twenty years or so to any extent, very often extremely well, so that detection is difficult. The chief warning against them are the colours; but in suspicious cases it is better, if possible, to compare them with undoubted genuine examples.
Another reason for the high value put upon Harunobu's prints is that, owing to the composition of the colours he used, they are very susceptible to the ravages of time and exposure, and are consequently rarely found in their original tints. Examples, therefore, in perfect condition are extremely valuable.
In examples by Harunobu, to a greater degree, perhaps, than is the case with other artists, perfect condition is of the utmost importance. His colours are so delicate, and applied with such refinement, that fading or changes of tint detract from their beauty to a more noticeable degree than is the case with artists who used the full-size sheet for their compositions, and who relied for effect upon colours laid on in broad masses more than upon subtle graduation of tints.
At Plate 1, page 12, are illustrated two fine examples of Harunobu's work, both originally in the Happer
collection. They are from a set entitled
Social Customs (or Fashions) of the Four Seasons with appropriate
poem written on conventional clouds. Illustration 1, showing two girls on a balcony, one holding a samisen
and a book, is for the
flower-month, i.e. April; Illustration 2 represents a young girl being taken by her
parents, accompanied by an elder daughter, to the temple for the Miyamairi ceremony of naming; this
being for the kagura month, kagura being the name given to a sacred dance enacted at the shrine of a
local deity and takes place upon his death-day. A
great kagura festival is one given in honour
of the Sun-goddess, Amaterasu, and all local deities are considered to be under her sway.
Another copy of this print is in the British Museum collection, and the translation of the poem is given in
the catalogue thereto as follows:
Though there are no cedars in the gate, from the village comes the auspicious
sound of the kagura music; may this be of good augury for the child's first temple-visiting. This series
consists of thirteen prints, one for each month of the year, which had, therefore, an intercalary month, the fourth
being illustrated twice over; this would fix the date at 1770.
Almost as famous as Harunobu is Isoda KORIUSAI, who worked from about 1760-1780, and who is best known by his long, narrow pillar-prints (hashira-ye), measuring about 27 in. by 5 in. As these pillar-prints, unlike the ordinary full-size sheet, were intended for internal decoration and use, to hang on the pillars (hashira) of a house, far fewer in proportion have survived to our day than is the case with the ordinary full-size print.
Consequently these pillar-prints are very rare. Apart from their beauty, the wonderful talent displayed in the
amount of composition, yet withal without crowding, portrayed on a sheet but five inches wide excites our admiration
for the designers of these narrow prints. Koriusai was one of the few cases of an artist of the Ukiyoye
school who was not of the artisan class. He was a samurai, or feudal retainer to a daimyo, and on
the death of his master became a ronin, that is unattached, and took up the calling of an artist as a means
of livelihood. In signing his prints, he sometimes dropped the final syllable of his name, putting only
Koriusai also designed prints of the same size and in a manner so closely akin to that of Harunobu that, when unsigned, it is often difficult to say to which of these two they should be ascribed. But unlike Harunobu (except for one or two very rare examples) Koriusai used the full-size sheet like the compositions of Kiyonaga, in addition to his pillar-prints, for figure-studies, a good example of which is illustrated at Plate 31, page 186.
Katsukawa SHUNSHO (1726-1793) is another important artist, whose work consists almost exclusively of actor-portraits in hoso-ye form, which are not very rare, thanks to his large output, but vary in quality. Two fine examples of his work in this form are shown at Plate 35, page 214. His prints arc sometimes unsigned, when, in place of a signature, they are impressed with a seal in the form of a jar.
A distinguished follower of Shunsho's is Ippitsusai BUNCHO (w. 1764-1796), but his prints are exceedingly rare.
We now come to KIYONAGA (1742-1815), who became the fourth head of the Torii school, and in whom, and his immediate followers and contemporaries, the colour-print reached its highest excellence.
Though Kiyonaga was a pupil of Kiyomitsu, he very early in his artistic career abandoned the traditional actor-print
of the Torii school, and only took to it again at the close before retiring altogether from the domain of
print-designing. It is in Kiyonaga that we see the portraiture of women raised to its highest level, a level
equalled only by Shuncho; women at their daily occupations, promenading out of doors, or portraits of the most famous
beauties of the
It was he, also, who first developed the three- and five-sheet print into a single design, though it is noticeable that frequently each sheet is complete in itself and can be shown as a separate unit, according to choice, yet the full effect of the artist's intention is only apparent in the whole composition. Previous to the time of Kiyonaga, the hoso-ye prints of the Primitives were originally printed in sets of three and then divided, three being engraved on one block as a matter of convenience. Of course, a complete set of such hoso-ye prints in the form of an uncut triptych is extremely rare. Such a print, however, appeared in the Blondeau collection (sale April, 1910) in a hoso-ye triptych by Kiyomitsu, representing three pairs of lovers, each under an umbrella. In the Happer sale there also appeared three hoso-ye prints from the one block, but these had been divided.
Kiyonaga evidently developed the idea shown in the hoso-ye triptych to a triptych composed of three full-size sheets, each printed from their own set of blocks, and capable of being shown either singly or joined together to form a complete picture.
Like Koriusai, Kiyonaga was one of the chief exponents of the narrow pillar-print, and the average collector will find these less difficult of acquiring than his full-size sheets, though to obtain anything by him requires a considerable amount of patience.
Owing to the position he occupies amongst Ukiyoye artists, collectors are loth to part with such examples of his work as they may possess. Even a somewhat discoloured print by Kiyonaga will fetch £5 to £8; while a good, clean copy will be worth £15 to £20, up to more than double this sum, according to its importance; a fine triptych will probably mean an expenditure of anything from £50 upwards, and for the average collector may be considered as practically unprocurable, so rarely do such come into the market.
Though SHUNCHO (Katsukawa) was a pupil of Shunsho, as is shown by the prefix
Shun to his name, yet he
would be more correctly described as a follower of Kiyonaga, as, like the latter, he portrays beautiful women.
In fact, so akin is he to Kiyonaga that in the case of unsigned work it is sometimes difficult to say as to
which of these two artists it should be assigned. A fine example of his work is illustrated in colours at Plate D,
If anything, Shuncho's work is even rarer than Kiyonaga's; he worked between the years 1770 and 1800, and is said to have lived to about 1820.
Another pupil of Shunsho's studio, who followed Kiyonaga rather than the style of his master, was Katsukawa SHUNZAN, who worked between 1776 and 1800; his prints also are very scarce.
The same may be said of SHUNKO, a late pupil of Shunyei, whose prints are very uncommon. He worked during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and his signature must not be confused with the Shunko signature of Shunsen, nor with that of Shunko, pupil of Shunsho (see below), a designer of actor-prints, which are both written differently. To distinguish between them, this Shunko may also be read Shunbeni (see Plate 2).
A fourth artist who followed the style of Kiyonaga, but who was trained in another studio, was Kubo SHUNMAN (w. 1780-1800), pupil of Shigemasa, a very rare artist, whose output was chiefly in the form of book-illustrations and surimono.
Von Seidlitz says Shunman was also a pupil of Shunsho, but it should be noted that his method of writing the
Shun is quite different from the form in which Shunsho and all his recognized pupils wrote it.
Shunman's prints are very rare, as he worked for but a short time as an artist, laying aside painting for literature
during the latter part of his life.
Other pupils of Shunsho who carried on their master's traditions are (i) SHUNYEI (1762-1819), by some rated even higher
than his master; he is noted for his actor-portraits in hoso-ye form (see Plate 35), and also for his
representations of wrestlers (see Plate 36), a subject very few artists attempted, and of which he and Shunsho were
the chief exponents. (ii) Katsukawa SHUNKO (worked c. 1760-1790), who, like Shunsho, also used a jar-shaped seal in
lieu of signature on some of his prints. The
ko of this Shunko is written in a different character from that
of the Shunko (or Shunbeni) mentioned above, who is sometimes described as Shunko II.
A pupil of Shunyei, with examples of whose work the collector is likely to meet, is Katsukawa SHUNSEN, who worked between the years 1790 and 1823. He designed both figure-studies and landscapes, employing a very pleasing colour-scheme of rose-pink, apple-green, and a slaty-blue. Another pupil was Katsukawa SHUNTEI (1770-1820), who produced actor-prints and wrestlers. (Sec Note, Appendix II).
Shunsen, as already mentioned, used the signature Shunko on his later prints (c. 1820), and also added the name Kashosai to that of Shunsen.
Utagawa TOYOHARU (1733-1814) chiefly claims attention as the founder of the Utagawa sub-school, and as the pioneer of purely landscape drawings in the Ukiyoye. It was one of his pupils, Toyohiro, who trained the great Hiroshige, with Hokusai the greatest landscape artist of Japan; and another pupil, Toyokuni, had innumerable followers, so that the Utagawa school was the most numerous of any, and carried the art, though in a very debased form, down to modern times. Toyoharu's prints are very rare.
Upon the retirement of Kiyonaga from the field of colour-print designing, we enter upon the period of UTAMARO (1754-1806) and his con-temporaries. Utamaro was the son and pupil of Toriyama Sekiyen, a painter of the Chinese school, and was one of the most graceful and popular of Ukiyoye artists. He is among the best known to European collectors, his being the first colour-prints to be seen in Europe, and is famous for his beautiful figure-studies of women, which place him in almost the first rank of Japanese artists. At first Utamaro's work very closely followed that of Kiyonaga, and the example of this period here illustrated at Plate D shows clearly the influence of the latter artist.
Towards the end of his career, however, Utamaro's figures lose much of their grace by reason of the exaggerations he employs, drawn out as they are to an impossible length, till one expects to see them collapse altogether.
The Utamaro style is thus well described by Von Seidlitz in his History of Japanese Colour-Prints:
an absolutely new type of female beauty. At first he was content to draw the head in normal proportions and quite
definitely round in shape; only the neck on which this head was posed was already notably slender. . . . Towards the
middle of the tenth decade these exaggerated proportions of the body had reached such an extreme that the heads
were twice as long as they were broad, set upon slim long necks, which in turn swayed upon very narrow shoulders;
the upper coiffure bulged out to such a degree that it almost surpassed the head itself in extent; the eyes were
indicated by short slits, and were separated by an inordinately long nose from an infinitesimally small mouth;
the soft robes hung loosely about figures of an almost unearthly thinness.
About the year 1800 these exaggerations were still further increased, so that the head was three times as long as broad, and the figure more than eight times longer than the head. Most of his large head studies date at this period.
His triptychs, however, of which he produced a large number, do not show these exaggerations, except that the figures are very tall, and quite unlike any real Japanese woman. This trait, however, was common to practically all artists who portrayed the human figure, and was more or less an artistic convention as an expression of idealism.
Utamaro's signature is one of the first with which a collector will become acquainted, as it is one of the easiest
to recognize. His early work can be distinguished from his later by the form of the signature, apart from the differences
in the drawing of the figures already noted. In the former it is small, compact, and carefully written; in the latter
it tends to sprawl, is written larger, and the character for
Uta is finished off with a long tail, which does
not appear in his early work. The print reproduced in colours at Plate D shows his early form of signature.
It is his later straggling form which is found on prints done by his pupils and imitators, like that on the print
by Utamaro II illustrated at Plate 3.
The outline block of this print may be seen in the Department of Illustration and Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. On comparing it with this print, which is an early impression, it will be noticed that the original artist's signature has been erased and recut on the opposite edge, while the kiwame and publisher's seals have been taken out altogether. The wistaria does not appear, and was probably cut on a separate block for use on other prints of the series, though only this one has come under observation. A set of modern colour-blocks, with proofs therefrom taken by a Japanese printer, have been cut from pulls taken from the outline block, in order to show the various stages in printing the colours.
Both Toyokuni and Yeizan are said to have forged some of Utamaro's prints, signature and all.
Owing to the manner in which his prints were forged by contemporaries, Utamaro sometimes signed himself
Shomei Utamaro, that is, the
real Utamaro, thus signifying particular approval of his own work,
but prints with this form of signature are very rare. A print so signed is illustrated at Plate 30, page 182.
Utamaro is best known by his figure-studies of women, but he also drew landscapes, bird, animal, and flower studies, and a large number of book-illustrations.
He had numerous pupils and followers, who may be classed as the Toriyama school, taking the name from Toriyama Sekiyen, the teacher of Utamaro.
At his death in 1806, his pupil, Koikawa Shuncho, married his widow, an apparently not uncommon proceeding with pupils - Gosotei Toyokuni, for example - and assumed the name of his great master till 1820, when he changed it to Tetsugoro, but no work over this signature has come under notice.
Many prints signed Utamaro are undoubtedly the work of this second Utamaro, and it is sometimes difficult to say which of them. Generally, however, the difference in the drawing of the figure and face affords the clue, and sometimes the prints are seal-dated, which determines their origin at once, though in this respect it should be noted that sometimes a print is met with, dated a few months after Utamaro's death, which, by its characteristics, would seem to be the work of the master rather than that of the pupil, so that it is not improbable that certain series contain prints which are by either, the pupil having been called upon to complete sets left unfinished by Utamaro himself, just as is found in the case of Hiroshige and Hiroshige II.
The best pupil of, and real successor to, Utamaro was Kitagawa KIKUMARO (worked about 1790-1820), who about 1800
changed his name to Tsukimaro. His early work over the former signature is very fine, and very closely resembles
Utamaro's, as reference to the illustration of a rare large hoso-ye print (size 14 in. by 6 in.) by him
at Plate 3 will show, while at Illustration 4, Plate 49 (page 280), is reproduced a scene from a rare
series, medium size, oblong, with his signature of Tsukimaro (c. 1800).
At Plate 3, Illustration 2, is a fine figure-study showing the tea-house beauty, Tsukasa of Ogiya (House of the Fan),
about to write on a fan, compared to a Chinese beauty inset on a Chinese mirror; this example is signed Kaimei T
changing (the name) to Tsukimaro. (Formerly in the Hayashi collection.)
Other pupils of Utamaro may be identified by the suffix
maro to their names. Of these, SHIKIMARO
(w. about 1790-1810) is perhaps the best after Kikumaro; he was also a book-illustrator. HIDEMARO (c. 1800-1815)
assisted Utamaro in his famous
Book of the Green Houses (1804), as did also his pupils Kikumaro and Takimaro.
Besides the direct pupils of Utamaro, there were several artists who, while it is not known for certain that they learnt in his studio, evidently came under his influence, as their work follows his style very closely, but generally practically nothing is known of them except what we can gather from their prints, which are uncommon.
Two of the best of these little-known artists are Shunkyosai RYUKOKU (c. 1795) and Hiakusai HISANOBU (c. 1800-1810). A very fine head-study by the former, not unlike those of Yeizan at his best, is illustrated at Plate 3 opposite, and another excellent one is reproduced, full page, at Plate XIX in the Catalogue of the Tuke sale (Sotheby's, April, 1911).
Other followers of Utamaro are BUNRO (c. 1790) and BANKI II (c. 1800). SEKIJO (c. 1800-1810), a pupil of Toriyama Sekiyen, produced a few prints after the Utamaro style, and also some good studies of birds, full size, upright. He was better known as a writer of stories than as a print designer; as such his work is very uncommon.
As mentioned in a former chapter, forgeries, imitations, and modern reprints of Utamaro's work are rather common, particularly of some of his famous and rare triptychs. Thanks to his large output, genuine Utamaro prints are not very difficult to obtain, but of course examples of his earlier and better work are less readily procured than his later output. It is not easy, however, to find copies in first-class condition, the paper being often discoloured by exposure to the fumes of charcoal, which of course considerably reduces their value. This is due to their having been at one time used to decorate screens and paper partitions in Japanese houses.
Utamaro prints are worth from three to five pounds upwards, according to their importance and condition,
till we reach his fine triptychs at £30 or £40, up to £100 or £150 for a fine copy of
a rare example, while £300 has been asked for a well-preserved set of his famous
complete in twelve sheets. This print represents the whole process of the production of silk, from the raising
of the silkworm to weaving the material, and is one of his prints which has been extensively forged or reproduced.
A very fine copy of one of Utamaro's rare prints with mica background realized $65o (£130 at normal exchange) at the Ficke sale, New York, February, 1920, to which we alluded in our first chapter.
Another famous and very rare print which has also been reproduced is his triptych showing women diving for shellfish; this and several other triptychs are described in Appendix II.
Toriyama Sekiyen trained one other artist of the first rank, Yeishosai CHOKI (w. 1785-1805), also known as Shiko, a name which he adopted towards the end of his career. Opinions, however, on this point appear to differ, though the balance seems to be in favour of Choki being his earlier name. This view is borne out by the fact that work so signed is more after the style of Kiyonaga, while that over the signature of Shiko more closely follows Utamaro, whose style did not come into vogue till after the retirement of Kiyonaga, about 1795, though the latter outlived Utamaro by nine years. Owing to this difference of style it was at one time thought that Choki and Shiko were two different artists, though practically little is known of him but what we can gather from his prints, but these are very rare.
The signature Choki may also be read Nagayoshi, but the former is the name by which he is more generally known, though continental collectors appear to prefer the latter transcription.
A print by him over the signature Choki, forming one of a set of five, is here reproduced at Plate 2, showing ladies on a large pleasure boat on the Sumida River. On this sheet, No. 1 of the set, are depicted women preparing the evening meal.
Another example, later work in the style of Utamaro and his school, when working as Shiko, is illustrated at Plate 30, page 182.
There was also another artist who signed Shiko, known as Shiko II, who worked about 1810, and who was probably a pupil of Choki. His signature differs slightly from the Shiko signature of Choki.