Utagawa Kunisada (Tokokuni III) (1786-1865)

Kunisada (1786-1865), was in his own time was the most popular and successful print designer in Japan, ahead of Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige. His stock declined after he died, and has never recovered to the same levels, although he is still recognized as master of the woodblock print, just not a great one, and is now recovering in esteem somewhat.

He was born in Edo in 1786, and his father (who died a year after Kunisada was born) was an amateur poet of some note. After showing a prediliction for art (copying prints of actors), he was accepted as an apprentice in around 1800 by one of the great masters of the Japanese woodblock print, Toyokuni, and became one of his chief pupils.

He started out doing actor prints, the initial specialty of the Utagawa school, but eventually branched out into bijin-ga, and even dabbled in landscapes, but although his early work in that area (in the 1830's) showed real promise, he never did many. He did do a fair amount of shunga, but narrowly escaped getting into serious trouble with the authorities as a result, when they cracked down in 1842.

At that point, Kunisada changed his name, taking the name of his master Toyokuni; he is now known as Toyokuni III (Toyokuni II being Toyoshige, a mediocre pupil who had taken over as head of the Utagawa school after Toyokuni died). He often collaborated with Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi on print series during the late 1840's and 1850's, when woodblock prints were the rage in Japan.

During his lifetime, he produced a vast number of prints (estimated by some sources to be more than 20,000). A partial list of the many different series of prints he produced, along with references for each as to where in common reference works illustrations of prints from that series may be found, are available here.

He outlasted his contemporaries (one of his best prints is a memorial print of his friend Hiroshige), and his last years were marked by something of a resurgence in quality, as he did series with more inspiration than some of his seemingly mass-produced work of his middle years.

He died in Edo (having made only one documented trip out of it in his whole life!) in 1865.

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