Artist: Utagawa Kunisada (歌川国貞) / Toyokuni III (三代豊国)

Alternate names:
Fubō Sanjin ( - 富望山人)
Fuchōan ( - 富眺庵)
Gepparō ( - 月波楼)
Gototei ( - 五渡亭 used from 1812-44)
Hokubaiko ( - 北梅戸)
Ichiyōsai ( - 一陽斎)
Ichiyūsai ( - 一雄斎)
Kinraisha ( - 琴雷舎)
Kōchōrō ( - 香蝶楼)
Shōzō (common name - 庄蔵)
Sumida (original family name - 角田)
Tojuen ( - 桃樹園)
Tsunoda Kunisada (familiar name - 角田国貞)

Lifetime: 1786 - 1865

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Utagawa Kunisada (1786 – January 12, 1865) was the most popular, prolific and financially successful designer of ukiyo-e woodblock prints in 19th-century Japan.

The next passage of Kunisada's early biography is quoted from What About Kunisada? by Jan van Doesburg.

"Kunisada was born early in the year Temmei 6, probably in the second month, which roughly corresponds to March of the year 1786 of the western calendar. He received the name Tsunoda Shozō and the house name Kamedaya.

Little is known about his parents. His father was name Shōbei and he was well in his sixties when Kunisada was born. Shōbei earned a living as the owner of a ferry, and acquired fame to some extent as a haiku poet under the pseudonym Gokyōtei Kinrai. He died at the age of sixty-nine, in the eighth month of the year Temmei 7, some sixteen months after the birth of Kunisada.

Kunisada's place of birth was 'Itsutsume Watashiba', his parents' 'fifth ferry-house' at the river Tate in the city of Edo. The river was a small tributary which entered the river Sumida a few yards south of the well-known Ryōgoku-bridge. The ferry was located near the Gohyaku-Rakan temple in the district of Honjo. This part of the city of Edo is situated in the Katsushika area of the province of Bushū (Musashi). Kunisada has lived for some time at the Itsutsume Watashiba, but for the longest part of his life he lived in a house 'before the gate (Monzen) of the Komeido Tenjin shrine in the district of Honjo, north of the 'fifth ferry-house'. Around 1845 he moved to Yamagishima, again in Honjo."


Sebastian Izzard wrote back in 1979 that Kunisada's father "... was a ferryboat owner who kept the 'fifth ferry' station on the Tatekawa, a small tributary which entered the Sumida River just below Ryogoku Bridge in Edo." This is important because "In 1812 Kunisada's friend, the poet Shokusanjin [蜀山人], gave him a new go Gototei, meaning 'pavilion of the fifth ferry,' when Kunisada inherited his father's business. From this date until 1844 he employed this go, though after 1830 it is largely restricted to theatrical prints. In 1827 Kunisada entered the school of Hanabusa Ikkei, a painter who worked in the tradition of Hanabusa Itcho. From Itcho's name Kunisada derived his go of Kochoro, of which the first clearly datable example is 1830. He used this name concurrently with Gototei until 1844, when he took the name Toyokuni II..."

Izzard wrote in Kunisada's World on page 20 that the artist's use of the Ichiyōsai probably came from his connection with the Danrin (談林) haikai poetry group. At the time it was lead by Tani Sogai (谷素外) who died in 1823. That man's was Ichiyōsai. "Sogai was the seventh head of the school and numbered among his students the great late-18th century publisher Tatsuya Jūzaburō (1750-1797), the writer Santō Kyōden, and the artist Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820) and Toyokuni, in addition to several well-known Kabuki actors. Toyokuni, who derived his Ichiyōsai from Sogai, and most of Kunisada's generation of students were associated with this poetry group."


Among the very first Japanese prints to enter the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were 19 examples by Eizan. These were in an album of 24 prints which include 2 by Kunisada and 3 by Kunimaru. They were a gift of Mary L. Cassilly in 1894.

A second album of 88 prints was also donated at the time. It was prints from 'The Hundred Poets Compared' series including works by Hiroshige, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi.

Source: 'Early Collectors of Japanese Prints and the Metropolitan Museum of Art' by Julia Meech-Pekarik, Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 17, 1982, pp. 93-118.


In 1979 Sebastian Izzard estimated that approximately 30% of Kunisada's output was of bijin.

Izzard also noted that "In 1813 he was rated Sekiwake (second) in the Gesakusha Ukiyo-e Eshi Midashi Bansuke , a table of Ukiyo-e artists which parodied Sumo wrestler tables. Toyokuni came first and the young Kuniyoshi is named as Maegashira (twenty-seventh)."


The Kōchōrō (香蝶楼) can be translated as 'Fragrant Butterfly Mansion'.


Kunisada and the Rustic Genji theme

The following is a quote from page 35 of Bryan Fijalkovich's Master of Arts thesis at the University of Cincinnati.

"Kunisada not only designed the dazzling illustrations for Rustic Genji, he also created thousands of print designs based on it. He was head of a large studio, and with the aid of his pupils, he produced at least thirty-seven Rustic Genji print series between 1835 and 1866, one fan print series, fourteen single-sheet and diptych series, and twenty triptych series, with a grand total of Rustic Genji designs ranging in the 700s. As each print design had an initial run of 1,000 and that Rustic Genji was highly successful, Kunisada could easily have designed over one million Rustic Genji prints bearing his signature."


Kunisada's earliest known print

Andreas Marks wrote: "Reliably dateable to the third month of 1807, one month prior to the triptych [Futamigaura: 二見ヶ浦 初日の出], this koban in the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum belongs to a series Keisei jūntoki 契情十二時 (Twelve Hours of the Courtesans) of which no other designs seem to have survived. Taking into account that a triptych was a considerable investment for a publisher, it seems reasonable from a business point-of-view, that Tsuruya Kiemon 鶴屋喜右衛門 first tested the market for a new designer with a less complex composition. It can be assumed that Kunisada designed a complete series of twelve designs, one design for each hour of the day, and the response of the market must have been sufficient encouraging for the publisher Tsuruya Kinsuke to commission the newcomer one month later to design a large and expensive design like the Futamigaura-triptych."

Kunisada's first book publication

Andreas Marks notes that Kunisada's first book appeared in 12/1807. Kyokutei Bakin wrote the text of what is basically an cosmetics promotion. The title of the book is Gate to Eternal Youth, New Year’s Lotion.

Marks also noted that "... in the first half of the 1810s Kunisada himself could not maintain his position as leading book illustrator. Other students of Toyokuni, such as Utagawa Kunimaru 歌川国丸 (1794–1829) and especially Utagawa Kuninao I 歌川国直 (1793–1854) clearly dominated this field. From 1819 on, when Kunisada again became the most often employed illustrator of books, he would maintain his leading position in this field for many years to come."


Andrew Lawrence Markus wrote: "Kunisada's first published work was in Oi senu kado keshō no waka-mizu (Gate of immortality, New Year's water for cosmetics), a promotional brochure distributed in early 1807 as a New Year's premium for a perfumer's regular customers. Kunisada drew actors' faces on the characters— personifications of the sponsor's line of scents and cosmetics—while Bakin supplied the text. The response to this effort was so positive that Toyokuni permitted his disciple to share in the production of an Ikku gōkan in 1807; in 1808, the year Kunisada produced his first actor prints, at least 13 gokan boasted the signature of the 23-year-old prodigy.

From this point, his rise to preeminence was nothing if not meteoric."

Quoted from: The Willow in Autumn: Ryūtei Tanehiko, 1783-1842 by Andrew Lawrence Markus, p. 80.

Markus also noted that "In the course of an artistic career spanning seven decades, Kunisada produced an estimated 3 to 4 thousand prints—Kunisada produced an estimated 3 to 4 thousand prints—some would say more than 10 thousand— and collaborated in the production of some 350 gesaku titles." (Ibid.)

Kunisada's disappointment at not being named Toyokuni's heir

Of course, everything is speculation at this point, but Andreas Marks addressed this issue in his doctoral thesis.

"Maybe Kunisada was offended and wanted to show distance to Toyoshige (aka Toyokuni II), the newly appointed leader of the Toyokuni branch of the Utagawa tradition, when, in the second half of the 1820s, he began to take lessons with the painter Hanabusa Ikkei 英一珪 (1749–1844), a fourth generation successor to the genre painter Hanabusa Itchō 英 一蝶 (1652–1724). These lessons did not cause an interruption in his artistic output. On the contrary, in the 1820s, hundreds of individual actor portraits after kabuki performances came out, as well as over 120 series, the vast majority of these bijinga. He also made the illustrations to more than 100 books, among them the Nise Murasaki inaka Genji ­偐紫田舎源氏 (A Country Genji by a Fake Murasaki), a humoristic parody of the Heian period Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari 源氏物語) by the writer Ryūtei Tanehiko 柳亭種彥 (1783–1842) that was an overwhelming success and would lead to a new genre of Japanese woodblock prints, the so-called Genjie."

When and how Kunisada finally became Toyokuni

Marks continued on page 12: "The year 1844 was decisive in Kunisada’s life. Nineteen years after the death of his teacher Toyokuni, at a moment when the 58-year-old Kunisada had long been at the height of his career as a commercial designer and with Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi the leading figure in ukiyoe, Kunisada was finally awarded the long refused name ‘Toyokuni’ by Toyokuni’s family. The initiative to the name change came on the occasion of a commemorative visit to Toyokuni’s grave on the seventh day of the first month (February 24), the nineteenth anniversary of Toyokuni’s death. The occasion is also commemorated in a triptych designed by Kunisada, in which we see a small, kneeling boy in the center sheet, surrounded by three congratulating women. The toshidama seals on the boy’s kimono suggest that the boy is the new-born Kunisada who respectfully receives the presents."

How many prints did Kunisada design?

Andreas Marks in his doctoral dissertation said on page 20: "In 1966, Willibald Netto stated empathically that Kunisada designed at least 20,000 prints, making him the most prolific designer of Japan, probably even of the whole world. Sebastian Izzard also proposes at least 20,000 prints. An estimate of approximately 20,000 compositions, half of which is serial work, seems realistic. Such an impressive number would only have been possible by operating a large studio with dozens of students, assisting the master in designing background landscapes, inset frames, et al., and sometimes these students signed their section. Only an assumption can be made on how much assistance Kunisada, in general, received on his designs, especially since in the last third of his life, the studio’s output increased significantly, reaching such a large annual productivity which normally could not have been attained by a single person."

1852 was Kunisada's most productive year

"With almost 700 designs published as part of over 40 series, plus an immeasurable number of individual designs, 1852 was Kunisada’s most productive year." (Ibid.)