Utagawa Kuniyoshi was one of the great masters of ukiyo-e printmaking and a member of the Utagawa school, the 19th century's most famous and influential academy for the creation of woodblock prints. He gained fame during his lifetime for his images of warriors, which were incredibly popular at the time, and for the way they represented the samurai and Bushido way of life.
Throughout his life, Kuniyoshi also illustrated how even a non-samurai can embody the tenets of Bushido. He chose honor, sincerity and courage when faced with adversity, sharing a less-violent, but nevertheless kindred spirit with the famous Japanese warriors depicted in his art.
Kuniyoshi was born in 1798. The son of a silk-dyer, at the age of 12 he was recognized for his drafting prowess and became a pupil and apprentice of the master printmaker Utagawa Toyokuni.It was Utagawa Toyokuni who gave Kuniyoshi his name, a practice that was typical of the time. While he succeeded under the important printmaker’s tutelage, this early start to his artistic career did not lead to early success.
Kuniyoshi had a hard time finding commissions. He had been trained as a designer of actor prints, in service of Edo's kabuki theaters. He reached out to find work as an illustrator of actors, but there were no takers from the theaters of the day. He had to sell door mats door-to-door as a peddler to make ends meet.
In 1827, he was on the verge of quitting when he met Kunisada, a fellow pupil. Kunisada had achieved great fame as an artist, and made a show of his success around Edo by garishly displaying his wealth. The humble Kuniyoshi was disgusted. He believed he was more talented than Kunisada and so he doubled down on his efforts to become an artist, and won a commission to depict his first series of warriors. It was these warrior scenes that cemented his place in art history.
Kuniyoshi’s first commission was for six single sheets to illustrate a popular novel titled 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. The novel tells the story of 108 honorable bandits who lived in China during the 14th century. It was a Robin Hood story with the bandits fighting to protect the poor and downtrodden. At the time the novel was very popular among the Japanese towns people, and Kuniyoshi’s depictions of the bandits jump started his career as an illustrator of warriors.
Boyasha Sonjirô (母夜叉孫二娘) or "The Goodwife Sun" in Chinese. The Amazonian woman is seen binding an opponent whom she has overthrown together with his horse in the snow. She was the wife of Saiyenshi Chôsei
Throughout his career Kuniyoshi returned to the warrior theme. After all, his initial series launched a craze for this types of print. At the time Japan was in a period of relative peace, and the samurai were working in bureaucratic positions rather than fighting. There was a nostalgic feeling towards Japan’s past and its cultural roots in bushido.
Kuniyoshi created more than 380 warrior triptychs and diptychs between 1818 and his death in 1861. His prints show the individual warriors in battle stances and hold up their bravery and honour as virtues.Living his Life According to The Bushido in Kuniyoshi's prints, the depiction of specific warriors is tied together with that of the virtues of Bushido.
The Earth-Spider and his demons attacking the sick Raikô and his retainers, in this untitled print.
The code of honor that the samurai adhered to, Bushido values comprise sincerity, frugality, courage, duty, loyalty and honour until death. Many of the stories he depicted illustrate these traits.
The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden illustrates the importance of frugality and sincerity. The infamous tale of the 47 Ronin, who avenged the death of their master, shows loyalty, duty and heroic courage.
Examining Kuniyoshi’s life, we see how he too lived according to these values. He was known for his down the earth personality. As opposed to other successful artists who displayed their wealth arrogantly, Kuniyoshi was not known for dressing up. He had humble beginnings after all, and had worked his way up from the merchant class, as the son of a silk-dyer. His success was not put on display for others. Instead, he used this success to become a teacher, and was known for being a giving and compassionate leader in this role. He felt it was his duty to give back what he had learned of his life and career. He was loyal to his students, and many became very successful in their own right. His most important student was Yoshitoshi, who is now regarded as the "last master" of the Japanese woodblock print.
Yoshitoshi, his student, would go on to be regarded as the last great Ukiyo-e master, before a new wave of artists such as Kawase Hasui revived the form in the 1920's as "Shin Hanga".
Furthermore, he showed honesty and integrity in his work, and always followed his convictions. If he did not like commissions he rejected them no matter how lucrative they were.
It took great courage to continue to live his dream of becoming an artist. His perseverance and diligence made an artist of him, despite an inauspicious start.
His sense of duty and honor was unwavering, even in his later years. In the 1840s and 1850s, Japan was in the final phase of a long era of peace and relative prosperity under the Shogunate regime. However the price of this was a strict and oppressive rule that controlled even the most trivial everyday things.
Kuniyoshi Utagawa was among the few artists to protest, subtly taking aim at the shogunate with the satire and irony in his prints. In 1843 Kuniyoshi got into serious trouble with the authorities and was put under investigation. In the end he got away with a fine and a reprimand, with the woodblocks for a satirical triptych he had created being destroyed.
The risks of objection, no matter how modest, were real. For a similar offense, the artist Utamaro spent 3 days in jail and 50 more in handcuffs under house arrest. A fellow master of the ukiyo-e woodblock print, Utamaro never recovered from the punishment (and possibly the shame) and died a year later at the age of 53. Nevertheless, Kuniyoshi stuck to his beliefs of what was fair and right, and displayed great courage in standing up to an oppressive government.
In 1861 Kuniyoshi died. Seven years later in 1868 the samurai were abolished along with the feudal system in the Meiji restoration.
However, Kuniyoshi’s work stands the test of time and Rising Sun Prints now honors his legacy as one of the last masters of ukiyo-e printmaking, and the leading model of Bushido values in Japanese art. We hope you enjoy our tribute to his mastery, skill and display of warrior virtue with our latest collection: "Biographies of the Loyal Retainers - The 47 Ronin"
(30cm x 45cm)