April 28, 2011
June 26, 2011
Robert F. Lange Foundation Gallery (21)
Utagawa Toyokuni I was one of the most successful ukiyo-e artists of his generation. However, unlike better-known artists, such as Utamaro (ca.1753-1806), Hokusai (1760-1849), or Hiroshige (1797-1858), his work was not widely collected in Europe and the United States. As a consequence, today he is not as famous as his illustrious peers.
In 1794, the young Toyokuni I, then only 25 years old, established himself in the ukiyo-e world with his print series Actors on the Stage (Yakusha butai no sugatae). This commercially popular series confirmed Toyokuni I as a leading designer in the genre of actor-prints (yakusha-e). Like Utamaro, Toyokuni I was a contemporary of the legendary Tōshūsai Sharaku (active 1794-1795), whose prints reflected his interest in capturing the personality and inner psychology of subjects. At the same time, while Sharaku’s actors were usually exaggerated caricatures with grotesquely realistic facial features (especially noticeable for male actors playing female roles, or onnagata), Toyokuni's prints portrayed more accessible, idealized images. Consequently, it is perhaps not surprising that Sharaku’s career lasted less than a year, while Toyokuni's continued for decades. Ironically, because Toyokuni’s prints sold well and were thus plentiful, his work was not as appealing to later collectors, who coveted Sharaku's prints for their exceptional rarity.
The versatile Toyokuni I’s talent was not limited to yakusha-e. Renowned for his pictures of beautiful women (bijinga) and book illustrations, his diverse designs often introduced novel compositions in a well-established genre that was in danger of becoming hackneyed by the time he was active. For example, his The Fan Store at Eijudō, produced circa 1800, featured multiple female figures in an innovative panoramic composition that differed from the typical single-portrait bijinga format. To the right, a kneeling lady holds a fan depicting the celebrated Kabuki actor Danjurō in the Shibaraku performance for which he was famous, reminding us that Toyokuni I was also a skilled designer of yakusha-e. The subtle insertion of an advertisement for another of the artist's prints into The Fan Store at Eijudō reveals a sophisticated sense of humor.
One sign of Toyokuni I's success was his establishment of lineage that extended to two of his students who inherited his name, Toyokuni II and Toyokuni III. In fact, Toyokuni III was actually the prolific and wildly successful Utagawa Kunisada I, who, together with Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi, dominated the Utagawa School during the 19th century.—SAWAKO TAKEMURA CHANG, ASSISTANT CURATOR OF JAPANESE ART & ROBERT F. LANGE FOUNDATION DIGITAL IMAGING MANAGER