Toyokuni I: Grand Master of Prints

Find out about the grand master of Japanese prints from the Utagawa school of ukiyo-e art.

Actor Onoe Kikugoro III (1823) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

Utagawa Toyokuni I

Utagawa Toyokuni I was born in 1769 in Edo (now Tokyo), the son of a famous doll maker. When he was 14, he joined the Utawaga school—founded by his neighbor, Utagawa Toyoharu—as an apprentice. His artistic abilities immediately stood out and were recognized by his teacher, who allowed him to sign using the school's artistic name. From then on, he became known as Utagawa Toyokuni.

Women making fans (1780/1825) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

Toyokuni started with prints of beautiful women (bijinga-e), a common theme in ukiyo-e prints of the late 18th century. They were inspired by ukiyo-e prints by Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806).

Twelve months (1809) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

In 1792, he was sought out by the most important publishers of the time to create some prints of Kabuki actors, which made him extremely popular.

Actors from the right Bando Hikosaburô III and Bando Minosuke I (1798) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

The quality of the Kabuki actor portraits that Toyokuni I produced in the late 18th century has been compared to that of the psychological portraits by Tōshūsai Sharaku, a genius of the ukiyo-e genre.

Actors Bando Mitsugoro and Sawamura Tanosuke II (1811/1819) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

Toyokuni I's prints aimed to faithfully replicate what was happening on stage during a performance. They are not merely images or portraits of actors as particular characters. Instead, they capture the performance's every facet, gesture, and movement.

Actor Matsumoto Yonesaburô I (1805) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

Between 1790 and 1810, Tokoyuni I produced large numbers of prints showing an actor in the foreground, and nothing at all in the background.

Twelve months, fifth month (1809) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

Toyokuni I enjoyed visiting the numerous festivals that took place in Edo and the neighborhood of Yoshiwara, where courtesans and geishas entertained merchants and artists.

Actors walking (1809) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

He loved the theater. The writer Shikitei Samba was referring to him when he wrote, "almost every morning, when the first musical notes played by the theater's orchestra could be heard, I would sit close to the stage and my friend, Toyokuni, would sit high up on the third floor.”

Actors Ichikawa Monzaburo and Ichikawa Danjuro VII (1813/1820) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

Toyokuni I was great friends with the leading actors of Kabuki theater. As well as capturing their key moments on stage, he also enjoyed drawing them in their daily lives. This shows the actors Ichikawa Danjūrō VII and Sawamura Gennosuke I, two of the most important Kabuki actors of the early 19th century.

Actors, from the right, Ichikawa Danjuro VII, Iwai Kumesaburo II and Iwai Kumesaburo II (1821) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

From the late 17th century onward, ukiyo-e artists also incorporated this element into their works, as can be seen with these three actors performing in the play The Tale of Kasane.

Palanquin trip (1812/1814) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

Toyokuni I worked tirelessly and produced an enormous quantity of prints for theater enthusiasts and the actors' fans. In later life, he also produced prints of beautiful women.

Actors Ichikawa Danjuro VII and Sawamura Gennosuke I (1809) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

His large volume of work and associated fame contributed to his growing affluence. Between 1803 and 1817, as his popularity grew, his work became more static and less creative.

Shini-e, actors Ichikawa Monnosuke III and Otani Baju II (1824) by Utagawa Toyokuni IBujalance Collection

Toyokuni I died in 1825 in Edo, at the age of 57, surrounded by many of his pupils. The year of his marriage and the name of his wife are unknown, but he did have two children who also became artists. His daughter Kunikame (1800–71) learned to paint with him, following in his footsteps as an ukiyo-e artist. His son Naojiro was a wood sculptor.

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