Utagawa Toyokuni

In this Japanese name, the family name is Utagawa.

Utagawa Toyokuni (Japanese: 歌川豐國; 1769 in Edo – 24 February 1825 in Edo), also often referred to as Toyokuni I, to distinguish him from the members of his school who took over his (art-name) after he died, was a great master of ukiyo-e, known in particular for his kabuki actor prints. He was the second head of the renowned Utagawa school of Japanese woodblock artists, and was the artist who really moved it to the position of great fame and power it occupied for the rest of the nineteenth century.

Onoe Eisaburo I, c.1800


He was born in Edo, the son of Kurahashi Gorobei, a carver of dolls and puppets, including replicas of kabuki actors.[1] At around 14, Toyokuni was apprenticed to the first head of the Utagawa house, Utagawa Toyoharu, whom his father knew well and who lived nearby.[2] One of his fellow pupils under Toyoharu was Toyohiro, whose pupil was the great landscape artist Hiroshige. In recognition of his artistic ability, Toyokuni later took the name Utagawa Toyokuni, following the common practice of using one syllable of his master's name.[3]

Toyokuni seems not to have been an "intuitive genius"[4] determined to forge a new path; rather, he seems to have studied intently those who came before him, particularly Utamaro, Chōbunsai Eishi and Eishōsai Chōki.[5] and through a great deal of hard work produced first a mastery, and then a synthesis of their styles, to create a style of his own.[6]

He was known mostly for his prints related to the kabuki theatre, in particular his yakusha-e actor portraits, a field which he took to new heights. He also, however, produced other genres such as musha-e warrior prints, shunga erotica, and most notably bijin-ga.[7]

Ichikawa Komazo and Ichikawa Yaozo; circa 1800

In his actor prints, like Sharaku, one sees the real subject; but his prints merely portrayed what he saw, unlike Sharaku who exaggerated those aspects he saw as the most key. It is said of Toyokuni's prints that they recreate exactly what one would see on stage; they show actors acting, not merely just pictures of actors.[8] Together, these characteristics made Toyokuni's prints far more popular among theatre-goers than Sharaku's,[9] although history has come to judge Sharaku the keener observer and greater artist.[10]

His popularity and prolific output[11] may in part have been his undoing, though. From 1803 through 1817, his work became more static, even as it became more popular. He continued to produce large quantities of prints, but the quality as a rule did not match that of his earlier days. Occasional prints from this period, however, show his old brilliance.[12]

He died in Edo in 1825 aged 57, surrounded by many of his pupils.[13]


Like most Edo period Japanese artists, Toyokuni was known by several names throughout his lifetime, some sequentially and some concurrently.

In addition, the name 'Toyokuni' has been transcribed through several kanji character combinations, both by the artist himself and by those writing about him.

Today, Toyokuni is almost universally written using the characters 豊国. Each of the other kanji are no longer in common usage.


Matsumoto Koshiro V; circa 1800s

Toyokuni's two major pupils were the woodblock print masters Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, but he had a host of students in his school. Indeed, so powerful was the Utagawa school after Toyokuni's time that almost every Japanese print artist of note either had one of these two characters in his , or, like Yoshitoshi, was a student of one who did.[20]

His , "Toyokuni", was initially used after his death by his son-in-law, Toyoshige, who is therefore known to us as Toyokuni II. Thereafter, it was handed down and used by each head of the Utagawa school in turn. Kunisada is thus also known as Toyokuni III.[21]

Retrospective observations

Evaluations of him as an artist are somewhat mixed. Indeed, he himself is reported to have once said:

"My pictures – they are merely something that I draw, and nothing more than that!"[22]

The main criticisms of his works relate to his "predominantly imitative" style,[23] and to the "marked decline" in the quality of works from later in his career.[24] However, Toyokuni's style is admired for characteristics such as "decorative bombast",[25] and "bold, taut designs".[26] He is also credited with such innovations as diptych, triptych and polytych formats,[27] and with training future masters of ukiyo-e.[28] His work captured the world around him, particularly the kabuki theatre, with great clarity, and his style was a step forward. In addition, it was commercially successful, and thus freed woodblock prints from many of the restrictive canons which had limited previous generations of artists.

Print series

Here is a very incomplete list of his print series, with dates:

Collections and museums


See also


  1. Percival 1978, 30
  2. Chiappa 2013
  3. Percival 1978, 30
  4. Chiappa 2012
  5. Percival 1978, 30
  6. Newland 2005, 502
  7. Marks 2010, 96
  8. Tazawa 1981, 346
  9. Tazawa 1981, 346
  10. Chiappa 2013
  11. According to Marks, by the time of his death at age 57, Toyokuni had produced more than 90 print series, over 400 illustrated books, and several hundred single sheet prints. (2010, 96)
  12. Waterhouse 1975, 200
  13. Waterhouse 1975, 200
  14. Tazawa 1981, 347
  15. Tazawa 1981, 347
  16. Tazawa 1981, 347
  17. ULAN 2004
  18. Marks 2010, 96
  19. ULAN 2004
  20. Chiappa 2013
  21. From his accession to the name Toyokuni in 1844, Kunisada consistently signed his works Toyokuni II, refusing to accept the legitimacy of his predecessor, Toyokuni II. He is, however, always referred to as Toyokuni III (Marks 2010, 120).
  22. Newland 2005, 502
  23. Lane 1978, 151
  24. Waterhouse 1975, 200
  25. Lane 1978, 152
  26. Newland 2005, 502
  27. Percival 1978, 32
  28. Tazawa 1981, 346

Further reading

External links

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