Utagawa Kunisada (Japanese: 歌川 国貞; also known as Utagawa Toyokuni III (三代歌川豊国); 1786 – 12 January 1865) was the most popular, prolific and commercially successful designer of ukiyo-e woodblock prints in 19th-century Japan. In his own time, his reputation far exceeded that of his contemporaries, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi.
At the end of the Edo period (1603–1867), Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi and Kunisada were the three best representatives of the Japanese color woodcut in Edo (capital city of Japan, now Tokyo). However, among European and American collectors of Japanese prints, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, all three of these artists were actually regarded as rather inferior to the greats of classical ukiyo-e, and therefore as having contributed considerably to the downfall of their art. For this reason, some referred to their works as "decadent".
Beginning in the 1930s and 1970s, respectively, the works of Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi were submitted to a re-evaluation, and these two are now counted among the masters of their art. Thus, from Kunisada alone was withheld, for a long time, the acknowledgment which is due to him. With a few exceptions, such as actor portraits (yakusha-e) and portraits of beautiful women (bijin-ga), at the beginning of his career, and some series of large-size actor head-portraits near the end, it was thought that he had produced only inferior works. It was not until the early 1990s, with the appearance of Jan van Doesburg's overview of the artistic development of Kunisada, and Sebastian Izzard's extensive study of his work, that this picture began to change, with Kunisada more clearly revealed as one of the "giants" of the Japanese print that he was.
Although not much is known of the details of Kunisada's life, there are some well-established records of particular events. He was born in 1786 in Honjo, an eastern district of Edo. His given name was Sumida Shōgorō IX (角田庄五朗), and he was also called Sumida Shōzō (角田庄蔵). A small licensed and hereditary ferry-boat service belonged to his family, and the income derived from this business provided a certain basic financial security. His father, who was an amateur poet of some renown, died in the year after his birth. While growing up, he developed an early talent for painting and drawing. His early sketches at that time impressed Toyokuni, the great master of the Utagawa school and prominent designer of kabuki and actor-portrait prints. In the year 1800 or shortly thereafter Kunisada was accepted by Toyokuni I as an apprentice in his workshop. In keeping with a tradition of Japanese master-apprentice relations, he was then given the official artist name of "KUNI-sada", the first character of which was derived from the second part of the name "Toyo-KUNI".
His first known print dates to the year 1807; however this seems to have been an exceptional design, and further full-sized prints appear starting only in 1809–1810. As of 1808 he had already begun work as an illustrator of e-hon (woodblock print illustrated books) and his popularity rapidly increased. In 1809 he was referred to in contemporary sources as the "star attraction" of the Utagawa school, and soon thereafter was considered as at least equal to his teacher Toyokuni in the area of book illustration. Kunisada's first actor portraits appeared in either 1808 or 1809. It is known that his first bijin-ga series and a series of pentaptychs of urban scenes of Edo, appear simultaneously in 1809. By 1813 he had risen as a "star" in the constellation of Edo's artistic world; a contemporary list of the most important ukiyo-e artists places him in second place behind Toyokuni I. Kunisada remained one of the "trendsetters" of the Japanese woodblock print until his death in early 1865.
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