Toyohara Kunichika (Japanese: 豊原 国周; 30 June 1835 – 1 July 1900) was a Japanese woodblock print artist. Talented as a child, at about thirteen he became a student of Tokyo’s then-leading print maker, Utagawa Kunisada. His deep appreciation and knowledge of kabuki drama led to his production primarily of yakusha-e, which are woodblock prints of kabuki actors and scenes from popular plays of the time.
An alcoholic and womanizer, Kunichika also portrayed women deemed beautiful (bijinga), contemporary social life, and a few landscapes and historical scenes. He worked successfully in the Edo period, and carried those traditions into the Meiji period. To his contemporaries and now to some modern art historians, this has been seen as a significant achievement during a transitional period of great social and political change in Japan’s history
At the time Kunichika began his serious studies the late Edo period, an extension of traditions based on a feudal society, was about to end. The “modern” Meiji era (1868–1912), a time of rapid modernization, industrialization, and extensive contact with the West, was in stark contrast to what had come before.
Ukiyo-e artists had traditionally illustrated urban life and society – especially the theater, for which their prints often served as advertising. The Meiji period brought competition from the new technologies of photography and photoengraving, effectively destroying the careers of most.
As Kunichika matured his reputation as a master of design and of drama grew steadily. In guides rating ukiyo-e artists his name appeared in the top ten in 1865, 1867, and 1885, when he was in eighth, fifth, and fourth place, respectively. In 1867, one year before the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate, he received an official commission by the government to contribute ten pictures to the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris. He also had a print at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Triptych by Toyohara Kunichika: Onoe Kikugorō V as Akashi no Naruzō in the play Shima Chidori Tsuki no Shiranami (1890)
Kunichika often portrayed beautiful women (bijinga), but his finest works are considered to have been bust, half- and three-quarter length, and close-up or “large-head” portraits of actors, and triptychs that presented “wide-screen” views of plays and popular stories.
Although Kunichika’s Meiji-era works remained rooted in the traditions of his teachers, he made an effort to incorporate references to modern technology. In 1869 he did a series jointly with Yoshitoshi, a more “modern” artist in the sense that he depicted faces realistically. In addition, Kunichika experimented with “Western” vanishing point perspective.
Toyohara Kunichika: Spring outing in a villa (c. 1862). Illustrates the artist’s use of vanishing point perspective.
The press affirmed that Kunichika’s success continued into the Meiji era. In July 1874, the magazine Shinbun hentai said that: “Color woodcuts are one of the specialties of Tokyo, and that Kyôsai, Yoshitoshi, Yoshiiku, Kunichika, and Ginkô are the experts in this area.” In September 1874 The same journal held that: “The masters of Ukiyoe: Yoshiiku, Kunichika and Yoshitoshi. They are the most popular Ukiyo-e artists.” In 1890, the book Tôkyô meishô doku annai (Famous Views of Tokyo), under the heading of woodblock artist, gave as examples Kunichika, Kunisada, Yoshiiku, and Yoshitoshi. In November 1890 a reporter for the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun wrote about the specializations of artists of the Utagawa school: “Yoshitoshi was the specialist for warrior prints, Kunichika the woodblock artist known for portraits of actors, and Chikanobu for court ladies.”
Contemporary observers noted Kunichika’s skillful use of color in his actor prints, but he was also criticized for his choices. Unlike most artists of the period, he made use of strong reds and dark purples, often as background colors, rather than the softer colors that had previously been used. These new colors were made of aniline dyes imported in the Meiji period from Germany. (For the Japanese the color red meant progress and enlightenment in the new era of Western-style progress.)
Toyohara Kunichika: Kawarazaki Gonnosuke as Daroku (c. 1869). Illustrates “big head” portraiture and use of strong aniline reds and purples. Deep red make-up indicates anger, obstinacy, indignation, forcefulness.
Like most artists of his era and genre, Kunichika created many series of prints, including: Yoshiwara beauties compared with thirty-six poems; Thirty-two fashionable physiognomies; Sixteen Musashi parodying modern customs; Thirty-six good and evil beauties; Thirty-six modern restaurants; Mirror of the flowering of manners and customs; Fifty-four modern feelings matched with chapters of The Tale of Genji; Scenes of the twenty-four hours parodied; Actors in theatrical hits as great heroes in robber plays; Eight views of bandits parodied.
Outdoor scene of simple structures, lush foliage, and a lake.
Toyohara Kunichika: Toyokawa — The Scenic Places of Tokaido (1863)
In 1863 Kunichika was one of a number of artists who contributed landscape prints to two series of famous Tokaido scenes commissioned to commemorate the journey made by the shōgun Iemochi from Edo to Kyoto to pay his respects to the emperor. Otherwise, his landscapes were primarily theater sets, or backgrounds for groups of beauties enjoying the out-of-doors. He recorded some popular myths and tales, but rarely illustrated battles. When portraying people he only occasionally showed figures wearing Western dress, despite its growing popularity in Japan. He is known to have done some shunga (erotic art) prints but attribution can be difficult as, like most artists of the time, he did not always sign them. Kunichika had many students but few attained recognition as print artists. In the changing art scene they could not support themselves designing woodblock prints, but had to make illustrations for such popular media as books, magazines and newspapers. His best-known students were Toyohara Chikanobu and Morikawa Chikashige. Both initially followed their master’s interest in theater, but later Chikanobu more enthusiastically portrayed women’s fashions, and Chikashige did illustrations. Neither is considered by critics to have achieved his master’s high reputation.
Kunichika had one female student, Toyohara Chikayoshi, who reportedly became his partner in his later years. Her work reflected the Utagawa style. She competently depicted actors, and the manners and customs of the day