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Reference » Ukiyo-e »  Artists Biographies

Kunichika Toyohara 1835-1900

Kunichika Toyohara represents one of the last artists at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) who continued to make ukiyo-e prints with the full respect to the old-school, traditional ways. He was of a central importance for the production of actors' portraits (yakusha-e) and pictures of theatre performances (shibai-e) at that time.

His name at birth was Yasohachi Arakawa and he first studied under Chikanobu Toyohara of the Hasegawa school. Later, when he became a pupil of Toyokuni Utagawa III, he changed his first name using the Chinese characters from the names of his 2 masters –Kuni (from Toyokuni) and Chika (from Chikanobu), thus becoming Kunichika. As for his last name, instead of adopting the name of the Utagawa school that he belonged to, he decided on keeping the Toyohara family name, which is thought to be out of the respect for his first teacher. In his work, he also used the names of Kachoro, Ichiosai and Hoshunro, amongst others.

He was born a second son of the Oshima family in the Gorobei part of the Kyobashi district on June 5, 1835. He was known as a grumpy child who got into fights quickly and it is said that there were many complaints about his behaviour in the neighbourhood where he lived. He had an affinity towards art since childhood and in 1844, aged 10, he entered the apprentice of a local thread shop called Yamagata, but neglecting his work and always doodling, he was sent away and thus returned to his parents. The following year, in 1845 aged 11, his assisted the production of funny inscriptions on paper lanterns in the local shop.

In 1847 and when 13 years old, he started working in a hagoita (rackets with actor portraits for the promotion of major kabuki actors) shop called Meirin, changing his name into Katsunobu. It appears the shop master respected him for his work. Around 1848, when he was about 14 years old, he properly started his career as an ukiyo-e master as a pupil of Toyokuni III.

When he turned 27, he moved to Hanjiroyoko part of the Yanagishima district with wife Ohana. At the time, his first daughter, Hana, was born. The following year, when he was 28, his teacher banned him from using his name – Kunichika so he signed his work as Ichiosai, but he changed his name back after a short period.

By 1865, when he was 31, he had already gained reputation. Him and his rivals at the time - Yoshitoshi and Yoshiiku became generally referred to as Sanketsu ('The outstanding 3').

He had a wide cultural interchange with other people of the Edo literary circles of that period and also became a member of a comedy ensemble called Suigyoren when he was 34 (in 1868), assuming the name of Shugyo and even excelling in dance (buyo) and vocal mimicry (kowairo).

In 1871, turning 37, he fully engrossed in extravagant living, surrounded with the party of owners of the Daitenma district, as writer of the kabuki plays and humorous editions Kawatake Mokuami, writer Segawa Joko and the famous kabuki actor Onoue Kikugoro. His private life was one of a true so-called Edokko ('child of Edo') and he had a character of an eccentric, bohemian and a chevalier. A story has it that he had more than 40 different partners and lived under over than 117 addresses. His last residence was on the bank of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter.

His routine was to go out drinking in the Yoshiwara pleasure district as soon as he was paid for his paintings and would start painting again when the money ran out. He lived under a principle that the money left over for tomorrow is wasted. He was a rather heavy drinker, known to quarrel with his friends, Kawanabe Kyosai and the like, when drunk. In 1876 at the ahe of 42, he had a fight with his publisher, Yorotsuya Magobe over a money allowance for his painting.

But, surprisingly, once he took to his work it is said that he would not even respond to calling visitors. By simply being informed of the actor and the role name it is said that he was able to depict the scene of the stage with great accuracy.
In 1899, when he was 65 years old, his daughter died; after this shock he started drinking more heavily. Getting himself ill as a result, on July 1, 1900 he ended the final chapter of his life in the Honjomidori district. He was 66 years old at the time and it is said that his family were faced with the problem of being chased by bailiffs. His grave stone stands to this date at the Honryuji temple of the Asakusa district in Tokyo.

As it is well known, most of his best works were half-length portraits of kabuki actors (yakusha okubi-e). He also did bijin-ga (pictures of beauties) but when compared to the yakusha-e they are not many in number. He also made images of sumo wrestlers, landscapes, depicted soldiers, scenes from the Genji Monogatari novel, painted fans and sugoroku, the subjects of his work resulting from the public demand of the period. His work was so popular and comprehensive, that it is said that simply viewing his prints offers a chronological account of Japanese kabuki theatre from the end of Edo to the beginning of the Meiji period.

After Kunisada died, he fought for the leadership in the field of yakusha-e against his contemporary artist, Utagawa Yoshiiku, and started producing large quantities of full-length as well as yakusha okubi-e (bust portraits of kabuki actors).

Since the beginning of the Meiji period, he made a large number of triptychs depicting half length portraits of a single actor on a big format and in luxurious style, applying original composition in this new design of dynamic prints. He got acclaimed for his style that improved the quality of half-length portraits and because those prints became known by their innovative composition, he succeeded in obtaining the full supremacy in the field of yakusha-e.

His portrayal of human faces have some traces of his previous studies in hagoita style painting and can appear to be cold and hard, depending on the perspective, but it became a feature characteristic of his style.

He has no equal match among the masters of the traditional ukiyo-e and was superior to the artists of his generation but he couldn't bring back the past with the prints he made. Advancement of civilisation brought development of photography so the prevailing opinion among the publishers was that the portraits of kabuki actors depicted in Japanese prints were in decline. Therefore, he remained simply someone who kept alive the technique of his master Toyokuni III and left behind a magnificent number of half-length portraits of actors.

None of Kunichika's offspring succeeded him in his field. Hashimoto Yoshu Chikanobu was the most successful of his students.

Other pupils of Kunichika were Chikanori and Chikaharu.

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