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Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Japanese, 1798-1861

Warrior from 108 Japanese Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told

Circa 1838-1845

Color woodblock on paper

9 x 7 inches

Inscribed top left and right

Signed and seal lower right

Framed and matted under glass

Kuniyoshi was the son of a silk dyer named Yanagiya Kichiemon. When he was about 12 years old, Kuniyoshi was accepted as a student of Utagawa Toyokuni, I. His first known work is an illustrated book from 1814 and his first single-sheet print appeared in 1815. Although Kuniyoshi designed prints in a wide variety of subject areas kabuki, women, landscapes, nature prints, humorous and satirical scenes, cats, surimono, shunga and book illustrations, he is most recognized for his prints depicting warriors, scenes of historical figures and events and legends.

The warrior prints of the art Katsukawa Shuntei (1770-1820) apparently exerted some influence on Kuniyoshi. His first known heroic triptych was published in 1818, but he did not gain widespread fame and success until the publication of Tsûzoku Suikoden gôketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori ( The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told ) beginning ca. 1827. Seventy-five heroes appear on the 74 known ôban-size sheets. With this series, the print buying public began to enthusiastically support warrior prints by Kuniyoshi and othr ukiyo-e artists (painters of warriors). When the Tenpô reforms 0f 1842 banned prints of beautiful women and kabuki actors, prints depicting warriors and legends became the life-blood of artists like Kuniyoshi. As a result, he issued several large series of warrior prints during the 1840s. Yet even historical subjects could prove dangerous if treated in the wrong manner. In 1843, when Kuniyoshi designed a very popular satirical triptych of the shogun Tokugawa leyoshi and the earth spider, the woodblocks were confiscated and destroyed and Kuniyoshi was investigated and officially reprimanded.

Kuniyoshi was born into peasantry and transcended that status into the realm of internationally recognized master print designer by the end of his life. He was more aggressive and liberal than most artists of his era and he suffered the consequences of his “freedom of expression” on several occasions when government officials punished or warned him not to print anything of a suspicious or revolutionary nature.