Vegder's Blog

May 12, 2021

Toyokuni I is tired of waiting and so am I: a tribute – an introduction

Filed under: Uncategorized — vegder @ 10:16 am

Cherry Blossoms in the Wind, ca. 1795-1801, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Utagawa Toyokuni I died nearly 200 years ago and still doesn’t get the respect he deserves. This post is meant to be a prod to those with the intelligence and wherewithal to correct that.

Recently I was surprised by the arrival of the latest catalog published by Sebastian Izzard LLC. It was for his March 2021 exhibition of Kunisada works of art. The title is Utagawa Kunisada: His World Revisited. Of course, it is to some degree an updated version of Izzard’s Kunisada’s World from the 1993 exhibition at the Japan Society. In my opinion, this is the single most important and best publication devoted to any Japanese ukiyo-e artist and should be used as a template for anyone else who is thinking of doing such research. Actually, it should be a model for anyone writing about any artists from any age, nation or culture. While there are many pretty publications which look great on coffee tables or book shelves, most of them tell us little to nothing about an artist’s life, his oeuvre or his milieu. This is not true of Kunisada’s World. To be fair, finding hard facts about early Japanese print artists is daunting at the least, if not impossible. After two centuries of typhoons, earthquakes, massive conflagrations, social turmoil and World War II trying to put meat on the bones of any long dead artist is not for the weak or fainthearted. That is what has made Izzard’s accomplishment that much more remarkable.

I am telling you this because the arrival of this new catalog has finally gotten me to start this post. Izzard has helped salvage the reputation of Kunisada who was the most prolific Japanese print artist of his time. However, his teacher, Toyokuni I, has gone wanting when it comes to public recognition. There are no contemporary books in English or any other Western language that I know of that are devoted to this man. There are no great museum exhibitions with their accompanying catalogs devoted to his work. Maybe this will be the single spark – I do flatter myself, don’t I? – that will ignite a greater and certainly deserved reexamination of the genius and work of Toyokuni I.

One last point, before I get on with my latest task: don’t get me wrong, there are quite a few great scholars doing research and writing today on Japanese art. Izzard credits several of them in the acknowledgements in his latest catalog. Their contributions to this field are invaluable and I would be remiss if I didn’t agree wholeheartedly. That said…



I am not sure about the saying posted above, but it may mean that ‘The blind leading the blind shall both fall into a ditch’. If this is wrong please let me know, because there are so many things in life that I am truly blind to and translations is just one of them. On the other hand, if ignorance is bliss than I am exquisitely happy.

Blindmen struggling to cross a narrow bridge, notice the crescent moon, the bats and the willow tree, the British Museum. Date unknown. The publisher is Nishimuraya Yohachi. These figures are drawn in the style of Hanabusa Itchō (英 一蝶: 1652-1724).
The Blind leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568, from the collection of the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples.

I am not trying to infer any connection between Bruegel and Toyokuni I other than one of genius. Maybe there is one – that is for the true art historians to discover – but, as for myself, I know of none. However, I must say, I do love making these comparisons and hope that some of you enjoy seeing them, too.

Below is a second print of blindmen on a bridge by Toyokuni I, but this one is somewhat different. The drawing style is simpler – more in the style of a toba-e (鳥羽絵) – I will explain this later – and possibly meant to be more humorous. The image is accompanied by an inscription written by Shikitei Sanba (式亭 三馬: 1776-1822). That red, bifurcated seal at the end is that of the author.

Six blindmen on a bridge by Toyokuni I from ca. 1803-06. The publisher is Yamatoya Heikichi.

The curatorial files at the Rijksmuseum point out that there are at least two visual puns that modern viewers would never recognize. One is the use of water which is called ‘mizu’ (水, pronounced みず). The term to ‘not see’ is also pronounced ‘mizu’ (みず). The word for the chyranthemums seen along the upper right is ‘kiku’ (菊, pronounced きく). The word ‘hear’ can also be pronounced as ‘kiku’. Hence, blindmen who can hear, but do not see. Chrysanthemums plus water. Perfect.

There is a later edition of this print from 1811-13 in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It has a different publisher, Tsuruya Kinsuke, and there is a red toshidama seal used by Toyokuni I by this time.


While doing research for this project I looked at thousands of images of the work of Toyokuni I (1769-1825). The scope of his art is quite impressive. For that reason, I have tried to break it down into several categories and sub-categories so you will be able to see what I mean. Below is a partial listing, not chronologically arranged and not set in stone, because many works of art fall into more than one category. Also, I will not necessarily follow my own sequential list. Sue me! If I am able to accomplish even part of what I have started here I will be relatively satisfied. Wish me luck.

  1. Paintings
  2. A post devoted to the art of Toyoharu, Toyokuni’s teacher
  3. Prints devoted to beautiful women or bijin
  4. Prints devoted to male kabuki actors performing in female roles or onnagata
  5. Prints of kabuki scenes
  6. Prints of single male kabuki actors
  7. Prints of two actors on one sheet
  8. Prints which are portraits including okubi-e (or large-head pictures) of kabuki actors
  9. Memorial prints of deceased kabuki actors or shini-e
  10. Surimono prints – specially printed items not generally part of the commercial markets
  11. Prints of cultural or historically significant events
  12. Prints using Western perspective, a technique he learned from his teacher Toyoharu
  13. Miscellany including humorous prints, images of animals or creatures
  14. Hashira-e, a category of long narrow prints which were often hung or tacked up for display and thus show more wear and tear on them
  15. Book or ehon illustrations
  16. Shunga or erotica which I will discuss possibly, even if I don’t post them. [Such a prude!]
  17. Toyokuni’s legacy: his remarkably talented pupils


Advertising – product placement

Scene of the Mieidō Fan Shop, probably the Edo location, ca. 1808, above each sheet are noren or short shop curtains that says suehiroya or ‘folding fan shop’, published by Nishimuraya Yohachi, the British Museum

The name Mieidō (美影堂) appears toward the left on the fan-shaped signboard hanging above the male customer. Read it from left to right. The first two kanji characters also appear on the signpost standing in front of the shop, reading from the top down.

One thing that should be noted about this triptych is that often publishers found clients to underwrite the cost of production. This is probably the case with the Mieidō Fan Shop (御影堂扇屋). If they did underwrite this triptych then one of two factors could have been at work: 1) these prints might have been sold with an emphasis on product placement or 2) the shop might have given out copies of this composition to some of its best costumers. This is not the first time that Toyokuni designed such an advertisement for this business. There was an earlier triptych dating from ca. 1785–93. In both cases the publisher is Nishimuruya Yohachi. Below is that earlier example with some differences: a beautiful young woman is bringing the sole male customer a cup of tea, while a woman on the right is looking at a design of the actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V/Ebizō in a scene from Shibaraku. Perhaps one of his fan clubs is also an underwriter.

Earlier version from ca. 1785-93 was also published by Nishimuraya Yohachi. The noren here display the publisher’s logo as do the boxes used to store the design which are to be mounted onto folding fans. The Mieidō (美影堂) shop sign with their name painted directly onto it on the center right is partially seen above. Notice the group of puppies down below. From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Toyokuni’s 1791 portrait of Ichikawa Ebizō as Shibuya Konnomaru Masatoshi in a Shibaraku scene. Published by Yamaguchiya Chūemon. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Detail from a single panel in the collection of the British Museum showing a young woman inspecting an unmounted fan design with an image of Danjūrō V. Notice that is fan design is signed ‘Toyokuni ga’.

A personal note: I love this triptych, its flavor, its freshness, its panache. I particularly like the fact that the yellows have held up so well. I used to work for a man who gave me plenty of reasons not to like him. One of his personal quirks, by my standards, was that he swore he was allergic to the color yellow. After a while I started wearing yellow, button-down, dress shirts and keeping notes on yellow legal pads. This was in no way meant to provoke him, but it was my feeble attempt to keep him at some distance. Not sure it worked. We parted ways eventually and I was able to get on with my life.


Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss

Christopher Marlowe

Takashima Ohisa from ca. 1794 is one of my all time favorites. It takes my breath away. The publisher is Izumiya Ichibei. From the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Three thousand years after the actual Trojan War, Irving Berlin wrote “A Pretty Girl is like a Melody” (1919) which today would be viewed as completely politically incorrect, but in its time was considered socially acceptable. Oh how the times have changed. Whatever you do don’t read the original lyrics, because if you are under 65 years of age it may make your blood boil… it “will haunt you night and day.” Even Liberace’s bowdlerized version can’t overcome the underlying theme.

Nevertheless, every age has its beauties and many of them get immortalized by artists. Helen had a face that launched a thousand ships. Of course, the story is too long and convoluted to describe here, but suffice it to say Helen’s beauty brought on a great war, the destruction of a great city and eventually the establishment of an even greater one.

Takashima Ohisa (高嶋おひさ) has one of those faces. In the early 1790s she was considered one of the three most beautiful women in the Edo area. Artists like Shunchō, Utamaro, Chōki, Shun’ei, Eishi and others drew her and poets wrote about her. Here Toyokuni has shown her at approximately the age of 17 carrying a fan decorated with her shop’s logo, the triple oak leaf crest seen within a circle – the mitsu-gashiwa (三柏) – in her left hand while she is serving a cup of tea to a customer with her right. For the men of her time such an image was something to dream on.

The inscription in the upper left is the title of the series this print belongs to: ‘A Fashionable Triptych’ or Fūryū sanpuku tsui (風流幅對). Ohisa’s print was originally seen alongside those of two other great beauties.


If you wanted someone to illustrate your book Toyokuni I was your go-to guy

Here are a couple of book illustrations which were drawn by Toyokuni. The first one is from 1799 and the second one was produced three years later in 1802 and both accompany texts by Kyokutei Bakin. This is just a hint… a taste… a bit of the flavor of Toyokuni’s talents as an illustrator. If it could be imagined then he could draw it.

From Azuma sodachi satsuki no ochigiwa (東発名皐月落際) by Kyokutei Bakin (曲亭馬琴)
Waseda University Library
From Yakusha meisho zue (戯子名所図会) also by Bakin – this image is from volume 3. I love the yellow combs with are somewhat reminiscent of bridges. The British Museum

Toyokuni was the master of his age of the theatrical representation, bar none!

Nakamura Utaemon III(三代目中村歌右衛門 as Tamaya Shinbei (玉や新兵衛) from the play ‘Hadekurabe sato no isaoshi’ (艶色競廓操) by Segawa Joko II, performed at the Nakamura-za in the 3rd month of 1808. The publisher is Shimizu and this piece comes from the collection of the British Museum.
Onoe Matsusuke (尾上松助) as Rokusaburō (六三郎) on the left and Ichikawa Ichizō I (初代市川市蔵) as Kajikawa Chōbei (梶川長兵衛) on the right. From the play ‘Taiheiki kikusui no maki’ (太平記菊水之巻) from 7/1813. Waseda University collection.

So, many people have asked me… or is it “So many people have asked me?” – that comma makes a difference, you know – what is with the giant fish? Actually only one person asked me that and he is a Catholic priest, but that is neither here nor there. But, what I do know is that many people who have looked at this page have probably wondered the same thing and who can blame them. Well, I’ll tell you… The giant fish is, in point of fact, the spirit of a deceased giant fish and having a struggle with a giant fish by a particular term in Japanese: koitsukami (鯉攫) or a carp-grappling scene. That is what is presented here.

In any number of variant plays, always performed during the hot summer months, the hero Rokusaburō will go into the water to fight with the fish and later will drag it out onto dry land. An elaborate tank filled with real water was set up on the stage for this event. It ended up being extremely popular because many of the people in the audience would get splashed themselves and would thus feel the momentary cooling effects. They loved it.


No one was better at catching a likeness than Toyokuni

Of course, Toyokuni had his competitors and many of them were brilliant, but no one could surpass this man’s skill at portraiture when it came to representations of the kabuki theater. One of his greatest assets was his ability to produce images or nigao (似顔) that theater devotees would recognize immediately. He even produced the best how-to-draw-portraits book that others could follow. And for fans who just wanted to look at their favorites there was the Yakusha awase kagami (役者相猊鏡 – ‘A Mirror of Actors Compared’), a masterpiece of fandom literature in the early 19th century in Japan.

Portrait of Koshirō V from the Yakusha awase kagami from 1804. From the collection of the Musée Guimet in Paris.

But it was the okubi-e at which he excelled!

Large head portrait or okubi-e of Sakata Hangorō III (三代目坂田半五郎) as Omi no Kotōta (近江の小藤田), from the play ‘Nido no Kake Katsu Iro Soga’ (再魁槑曽我) staged on 1/1795, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

As you will notice I have chosen several of my favorite Toyokuni prints to decorate this page just to get us started. Hopefully it will tempt you to keep coming back to see and learn more in future posts. Please send any comments, pro or con, to this site. I will consider them all.

1 Comment »

  1. I just love you. Your effort is valiant, your means slightly overwhelming, and your passion is justified. You are a nut. My kind.

    Comment by mkc — May 12, 2021 @ 11:22 am | Reply

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