Vegder's Blog

May 20, 2021

Toyokuni I, a tribute: Utagawa Toyoharu, his talented but scattershot teacher

Filed under: Uncategorized — vegder @ 5:35 am

What do we know about Toyoharu? Almost nothing, but that doesn’t alter our opinion of his work.

Timothy Clark of the British Museum is, like Sebastian Izzard, another one of my reliable guiding stars when it comes to my studies of ukiyo-e art. His contributions to the field are wide and deep. For that reason, he is one of my favorite go-to sources who can be trusted. So what has he told us about Toyoharu? Well, I will let his words speak for him clearly and eloquently: “Almost no hard evidence about his biography is known, but said, variously, to be a native of Usuki, Bungo Province, or Toyooka in Tajima Province, or Edo. Early on may have studied the Kanō style under Tsuruzawa Tangei in Kyoto, then to Edo where his earliest work is an actor print datable to c. 1768. In Edo may have studied with Toriyama Sekien. From later Meiwa (1764-72) era produced many ‘perspective prints’ (uki-e) – views of Edo, foreign scenes, historical and legendary scenes – some of which have precedents in the work of Maruyama Ōkyo in Kyoto. At about the same time began to paint beauties in the prevailing Harunobu style and went on to become one of the most prolific painters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, giving up print designing in the 1780s to concentrate exclusively on painting. More than 100 paintings are presently known.”

Wow! In summary: we basically know no more about Toyoharu and his origins and development than we know about Shakespeare, for example. But the bottom line is that I don’t know anyone who can deny the genius of Shakespeare – even though a lot of people try to – and the same could be said for Toyoharu. Of course, there are a lot of crude and/or derivative works of art by him, but that should never overshadow why this man is so important: he was an extremely talented sponge who was looking for a style, but most importantly he was the first artist to use the name Utagawa – Toyokuni I was the second – a name that came to dominate the most successful clan of ukiyo-e artists ever… bar none!

Toyoharu’s work can be exquisite or it can be downright goofy. Judge it for yourself. One other point, I will not be following Timothy Clark’s suggested timeline strictly, but will cover as much ground as possible and hope that others will be able to sort out any of the chronological issues it raises.

Toyoharu’s skill as a painter

Let’s start off with a masterpiece in the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C. and follow that with a few select examples of his range of creativity. Then in the next few days I will be adding additional images, text and information. But for now…

A Winter Party – a painting on silk, originally donated by Charles Freer in 1906, now in the National Museum of Asian Art

Toyoharu’s Harunobu period

The Third Month: The Doll Festival, Gathering Shellfish at Low Tide (Yayoi, Hinamatsuri, shiohi) by Toyharu, from an untitled series of Day and Night Scenes of the Twelve Months, ca. 1772-75, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

There were 12 prints in this series, each divided between a day and a night scene. This was a convention used by a number of artists. The problem with every print produced is the question of whose idea it was – the artist? the publisher? or was it a commission from a third person or group, or a businessman? By and large, we can never know the full extent of the artist’s participation. We can speculate the hell out of such things but we can never know for sure. This is something to remember with every print you own or look at in a book, a gallery, a museum or online. The only thing we can be fairly sure of is that the artist had some hand in the final production and that is all.

There is another Toyoharu example of this split screen at the British Museum. Their curatorial notes say that it was published in a volume by Urokogataya Magobei (鱗形屋) in ca. 1770 along with the collaboration of Katsukawa Shunshō (勝川春章) and Kitao Shigemasa (北尾重政). Below are two of those sheets with the Shunshō on the left and a Toyoharu on the right.

The Months from ca. 1770 published by Urokogataya Magobei with a Shunshō on the left and Toyoharu on the right. From the collection of the British Museum.

Toyoharu’s mastery of uki-e or Western perspectives

Fishing (Senadori no zu), from the series “Dutch Perspective Pictures (Oranda uki-e)” – ca, 1768, published by Matsumura Yahei (松村彌兵衛), from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago
Look familiar? Guiseppe Zocchi’s engraving and etching from 1744 showing a river scene in Florence, Italy.
Canal scene from the Fukugawa district of Edo – from the collection of the Museum of Oriental Art in Venice


A party at a Shinagawa teahouse, ca. 1794 – from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts


You are not going to believe this, but…

Roger Keyes wrote about uki-e in Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Catalogue of the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection in 1984:

“The studies of Julian Lee have shown that Japanese artists did not learn the methods of western perspective from studying western prints, but via an illustrated Chinese translation of a European treatise on perspective which was published in Canton in the early 1730s and found its way to Edo by 1739, the date of the first large perspective print, an interior of a kabuki theater designed by the artist Torii Kiyotada. Lee has also shown that in the 1760s Chinese copies of European vues d’optique found their way to Kyoto and were copied there for use in Japanese-made viewing instruments. These Kyoto prints (which are often attributed to the painter Maruyama Ōkyo since he is said to have painted a number of perspective views for a man who sold viewing apparatus) were brought to Edo, and around 1770 Utagawa Toyoharu, a young Edo artist, began designing a series of block-printed miniature views for use in hand-held optical viewing devices. Toyoharu redesigned many of the miniature pictures as full-size horizontal prints. (This may be why many of Toyoharu’s prints have the words saihan, “reprinted,” after the publisher’s name.) The vogue for this uki-e, or perspective prints, lasted well into the nineteenth century, and many of Toyoharu’s prints were reissued often with new color blocks, until the keyblocks virtually wore out.”

Interior scene from the New Yoshiwara – Library of Congress collection

Ghouls and demons and other spooky things

The Four Heavenly Kings Killing the Spider Demon (新版浮絵 新版浮絵四天王上蜘蛛退治の図), ca. 1770s, published by Iwatoya Kisaburō – Honolulu Museum of Art
Yorimitsu and his men are entertaining the monster Shuten-dōji and getting him drunk – in the collection of Maizuru City

There was a time, a long time ago, when somewhere near an ancient capital of Japan, an ogre terrorized the region. He was oversized, captured beautiful maidens, made them his slaves and fed on the flesh of hapless humans who made the mistake of being captured by his demons. Eventually the people had had enough of these shenanigans and Minamoto no Yorimitsu (源頼光) and his men, disguised as mendicant monks, talked their way into Shuten-dōji’s palace. After performing a few jigs and getting the monster stinking drunk they killed him – but only sort of – by cutting off his head – which basically refused to die and had a few tricks of its own – and then taking it back to the capital for all to see and rejoice.

Yorimitsu (頼光) can also be read as Raikō, the name by which he is often known.

I know that the image shown above is a bit hard to read, so I have taken a detail from the center of it, tweaked it a bit for better readability, and am showing it to you below. It is easier to see Shuten-dōji getting drunk while watching the festivities.

Tweaked detail of the print shown above.

You will notice that in any number of prints accredited to Toyoharu the publishers have not cared particularly to get the registration just right. It is especially obvious in the ceiling of the full print, but is a bit off-kilter throughout the entire image.

The story of Shuten-dōji was a powerful and popular impetus for artists and publishers. As you know by now, Utagawa Toyoharu trained Utagawa Toyokuni I, who in turned taught, among others, Kuniyoshi, who in turn had Yoshitoshi as one of his pupils. Below is an 1865 Yoshitoshi print of Shuten-dōji relaxing and enjoying himself in better times… better times, that is, for him. Clearly Yoshitoshi’s apple did not fall far from the Utagawa tree even though he never used that family/clan name himself.

Yoshitoshi print of Shuten-dōji – from the Lyon Collection


Mother playing with children at New Year’s, no date – collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The curatorial files say: “Here, a boy entertains his younger brother by hiding in the layers of their mother’s kimono while she tries to hold onto the wriggling child. The playful, swirling movement of the three figures reflects the pleasant festivities of the New Year season, represented by the pine and bamboo decoration in the background.”


I love the use of black in his night skies

The Tenma Tenjin Festival at Night in Osaka (‘Naniwa Tenma Tenjin Yomatsuri no zu’ – 浪花天満天神夜祭り之図), from a series of Perspective Pictures (uki-e), mid-1770s, published by Nishimuraya Yohachi – gift of James A. Michener to the Honolulu Museum of Art

The curatorial information provided by the Honolulu Museum of Art state: “Hand-colored woodblock print Technique: Tan-e (Orange print)”. This is interesting since nishiki-e, i.e., brocade, prints using separate blocks for each color had come into vogue starting about 10 years before this print was produced. The kanji for tan-e is 丹絵. The publisher is Nishimurya Yohachi, which was one of the premier houses in the history of ukiyo-e production. That seems a bit odd because that would make this particular print a bit retro. I wonder why they chose this means of production.

Another thing I particular like about this print is the placement of the stars in the night sky. It reminds me of those darkened rooms you go into that are trying to simulate the nature of the cosmos, but don’t quite pull it off – no matter how charming their attempt may be.

Fireworks are nice too!

Pictures of fireworks being exploded over the rivers and bridges of Edo can certainly be classified as a sub-genre. A collector could focus on those images and could hardly go wrong. Below are other versions credited to Toyoharu. The differences between them is striking.

Fireworks over the river at the Ryōgoku Bridge (両国橋夕涼) – Tokyo Naional Museum
This one may be my favorite.
Fireworks as seen from the Ryōgoku Bridge – from the collection of the Tokyo National Museum
Another version by Toyoharu, published by Nishimuraya Yohaichi (西村屋与八) at the collection of the Harvard Art Museums
‘No. 3, View of Ryōgoku Bridge’ (Ryōgoku no zu, san: 両国之図 三), published by Nishimuraya Yohachi – from the collection of the Museum of Fine Artrs in Boston

You probably already notice the clever deceit of this image. It is meant to look like a decorated free-standing screen. Nishimuraya Yohachi has placed its seal or logo at the bottom center just below the screen. This would mean that there is no way a viewer could fail to give credit for this print. There is a long and ongoing argument about who is more important in the production and marketing of ukiyo-e prints. Despite the immediate visual effect, it is the publisher who is generally given the upper hand in this discussion. The artist is just another contractor, like the carver or the men who printed this image. It is the publisher who is ‘Numero Uno’ and here he wants you to know that.

An elegant tayu from the Kimura Teizo Collection of the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art.

I read somewhere that Toyoharu painted beautiful woman but didn’t design prints of them as other contemporaries of his did. That is certainly most curious and there must be a reason for this, but I haven’t a clue what it is. Of course, one could speculate, but speculation is only speculation. My best friend hates it when I speculate, but that doesn’t stop me. Besides, he is wrong in his attitude. Speculation can often lead to proof.

Why didn’t Toyoharu create beautiful bijin prints? Well one possibility is that his publishers didn’t want him to. Perhaps other publishers and artist controlled that market. Perhaps he only had a penchant for painting beautiful woman – one at a time – for special, well-moneyed clients. Who knows? Perhaps someone reading this knows or could find out. If there is an answer I would love to hear from you. Enlighten me please.

Toyoharu as a reporter of folklore

The monkey waving farewell – “Goodbye suckers!” – to the palace of the Dragon King while riding on the back of a long-tailed turtle – from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

In Genesis 3:4 God punishes the serpent, Adam and Eve. It is the serpent that interests me here. God tells the serpent that he had made him and placed him above all other animals, but because of his transgression he was going to take away his legs, his ability to speak and that from then on he would slither through the world on his belly, eat dust and would no longer be able to speak. The serpent would now be the lowliest of the low. I mention this because that biblical story has its parallels in the one seen above. But don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that there is any real connection between the two stories other than the ability of mankind in disparate locations to come up with similar situations.

The story of the monkey and the Dragon King (龍神) have numerous variants. In one popular form the Dragon King is told by his physician, an Octopus, that the only way to save the life of the king’s daughter is to feed her the liver of a live monkey. So the king sends a jellyfish off to find one and to bring it back to his palace. In those days the jellyfish had bones, a skeletal structure, that made his getting about a lot easier.

The jellyfish went to an island and started chatting up a monkey telling him that the Dragon King wanted him to come to his palace so he could be given certain precious gifts. The monkey said “Sure” and hopped onto the back of the jellyfish. One thing to keep in mind, a principal that Toyoharu didn’t quite capture in this print, is that the Dragon King’s palace lay at the bottom of the sea.

When the monkey arrives at the palace he finds out the true reason he has been brought there, to which he responds quickly, by seeming somewhat chagrined, that if he had only known the actual purpose of the visit he would have brought his liver with him, but alas he had left it at home. So the jellyfish was told to take the monkey back to his island so he could retrieve his liver and then to bring it back to the Dragon King’s lair in time to save the princess. However, once the monkey got home he climbed a tree and refused to come back down. The jellyfish could do nothing to convince the monkey to do otherwise and the jellyfish was incapable of climbing the tree to capture the monkey. So, totally dejected, the jellyfish had to return to the palace of the Dragon King – with his tail dragging metaphorically between his legs – to deliver the bad news and to receive his punishment for failing in his mission. The fact that that monkey (saru or 猿) is riding the back of a long-tailed turtle (minogame or 蓑亀) is incidental here. Like I told you, there a hell of a lot of variants on this story. All you have to do is pick the one that suits your tastes the best and go with that. All I am is the messenger. I won’t argue with quibblers. There must be a reason why the jellyfish has no bones, just as there are reasons why the snake slithers across the ground. Ain’t nature wonderful?

Another wonderful print by Toyoharu is that of the meeting of Benkei and Ushiwakamaru on the Gojō Bridge. It was published by Ōmiya Gonkurō who also published Utamaro prints in the 1790s.

Toyoharu’s version of the meeting of Benkei and Ushiwakamaru on the Gojō Bridge. Published by Ōmiya Gonkurō.

The curatorial files at the Indianapolis Museum of Art give a good summary of this encounter when describing a print by another artist, Katsukawa Shunzan.

“A favorite pictorial subject in Japanese art is the duel between Ushiwakamaru (the childhood name of Minamoto Yoshitsune) and the renegade monk Musashibō Benkei on Gojō (5th Avenue) Bridge in Kyoto. Having vowed to take 1000 swords away from their owners, Benkei had collected 999 when he spotted a youth wearing a richly decorated sword. His demand for the sword refused, Benkei attacked. But Yoshitsune, who had been trained by tengu (long-nosed goblins who could fly and were legendary masters of swordsmanship), leaped high in the air to strike the monk. Benkei conceded and became Yoshitsune’s faithful follower. In the war with the Taira, Yoshitsune won victory after amazing victory, but this only fueled the jealousy of Yoshitsune’s older brother, the future shogun Yoritomo. In the end, cornered by Yoritomo’s forces, Benkei dies while fighting off the enemy to give his lord enough time to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.”

The Chūshingura or the Tale of the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainer

A Perspective Picture of the Night Attack in the Chūshingura – pubished by Iwatoya Genpachi – at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

I especially like the guys climbing up and hanging from the rafters. Wonder what happened to them.


Woman walking in a breeze – no date – from the collection of the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C.


Please come back soon because there will be much more added to this page – images, text, explanations and commentaries. Thanks!

Next Page »

Blog at