Utagawa Toyokuni III (Kunisada)

Japanese 1786-1865



The most popular and successful Japanese printmaker of his time, Kunisada (who began life as Sumida Shozgoro IX) was already a chief pupil of master Utagawa Toyokuni at the age of fourteen. From the beginning of his career until the time of his death, Kunisada, or Toyokuni III as he became later, was known as a trendsetter and a “star in the constellation of Edo’s (Tokyo’s) artistic world.


Starting out doing kabuki and yakusha-e (theatre and actor) prints, the specialty of the Utagawa School, Kunisada—given this name at the school—eventually branched out, showing remarkable talent with landscapes and bijin-ga, or beautiful women. He was known also to have created quite a number of shunga (erotic) prints and narrowly escaped severe punishment by the officials when they cracked down on such artists in 1842.


In 1844, Kunisada formally adopted the name of his master, and began adding Toyokuni to his various other prefixes. Toyokuni I had died in 1825 but had been succeeded by his son-in-law, Toyoshige who, until his death in 1835 had signed his work Toyokuni II. Because of this, and although Toyokuni II was regarded as an inferior artist, Kunisada is regarded as Toyokuni III.


In the 1840s and 1850s, woodblock prints in Japan were in high demand and Kunisada sometimes collaborated with contemporaries Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi on print series. An extremely prolific printmaker, it is estimated that Toyokuni III produced between fifteen and twenty thousand designs in his lifetime.