Kunisada Biography

He was born 1786 in Honjo, an eastern district of Edo and given the name Sumida Shogoro but was also called Sumida Shozo.  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 as a half-orphan, it seems he developed an early talent for painting and drawing .  His early sketches at that time impressed Toyokuni, master of the Utagawa School;  In the year 1800 or shortly thereafter Kunisada was accepted by Toyokuni as an apprentice in his workshop and eventually derived his name from the master.  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. However as of 1808 he had already begun work as an illustrator of ehon (woodblock print illustrated books) and his popularity was fast increasing. 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 bijinga series and a series of pentaptychs showing city 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) and until his death in early 1865, Kunisada remained one of the trendsetters of the Japanese woodblock print.  Beginning around 1810 Kunisada used the studio name Gototei, which refers cryptically to the Ferry Boat Business (Fifth Boat House). Until 1842 this signature appeared on nearly all of his kabuki designs. Around 1825 the studio name Kochoro appeared, and was often used on prints not related to kabuki. This name was derived from a combination of the pseudonyms of master painter Hanabusa Itcho, and that of his successor Hanabusa Ikkei, with whom Kunisada had studied a new style of painting around 1824 – 1825.  In 1844, he finally adopted the name of his master Toyokuni I, and for a brief time used the signature ''Kunisada becoming Toyokuni II''. Starting in 1844-1845, all of his prints are signed Toyokuni.  The question is unsettled as to why he intentionally ignored the fact that Toyoshige (pupil and son-in-law of Toyokuni I) had borne the name Toyokuni, as legitimate head of the Utagawa school, from 1825 until his own death in 1835.  Almost from the first day of his activity, and even at the time of his death in early 1865, Kunisada was a trendsetter in the art of the Japanese woodblock print. Always at the vanguard of his time, and in tune with the tastes of the public, he continuously developed his style, which was sometimes radically changed, and did not adhere to stylistic constraints set by any of his contemporaries.  His productivity was extraordinary, with 14,500 individual designs catalogued (multi-ptych sets counted as a single design) corresponding to more than 22,500 individual sheets. It seems probable based on these figures that Kunisada actually produced between 20,000 and 25,000 designs for woodblock prints during his lifetime (i.e. 35,000 to 40,000 individual sheets).  Following the traditional pattern of the Utagawa school, Kunisada's main occupation was kabuki and actor prints, and about 60% all of his designs fall in this category. However he was also highly active in the area of bijin prints (comprising about 15% of his complete works), and their total number was far higher than any other artist of his time. From 1820 to 1860 he likewise dominated the market for portraits of Sumo wrestlers. For a long time (1835-1850) he had an almost complete monopoly on the genre of Genji prints, it was only after 1850 that other artists began to produce similar designs. Noteworthy also are the number of his surimono, although they were designed almost exclusively prior to 1844, few artists were better-known in this area.  Landscape prints and musha-e (samurai warrior prints) by Kunisada are rare, and only about 100 designs in each of these genres are known. He effectively left these two fields to be covered by his contemporaries Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi, respectively.  Source: Excerpted from an article on Wikipedia.  For interesting essays and further scholarship, refer to Izzard, Sebastian; Kunisada's World, published by The Asia Society.