Kunisada (Toyokuni III)

Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III)


An Up-to-Date Parody of the Four Classes: Artisans
(Imayo mitate shi-no-ko-sho: Shokunin)

each sheet signed Toyokuni-ga, with cansor's seal aratame (examined), and date seal Mi-hachi (year of the snake [1857], 8th month) with publisher's seal Shitaya Uo-Ei (Uoya Eikichi)

oban tate-e triptych 30 1/8 by 14 in., 76.4 by 35.6 cm

This scene illustrates an imaginary world in which women fill all of the roles of the artisans engaging in woodblock print production. Beginning from right to left, the woman seated at a low table is carving a keyblock, the subject appropriately a bijin-ga (image of a beauty) depicting a standing figure modeling kimono and adorned with prominent hair ornaments. The paper hanashita (ink drawing of the print design) is pasted down on the cherrywood block (\valued for its fine grain), and in the lower left corner of the print composition we see the unmistakable shape of Kunisada's distinctive elongated Tama-shaped cartouche. Keyblock carving was the reserve of the master carver, and she demonstrates the correct carving technique, holding the hangito (carving knife) perpendicular to the block, as she turns towards a beauty in the foreground sharpening carving tools on a whetstone. In the center panel a junior carver uses a chisel and wood mallet to clear away the background areas of a color block, while in the foreground an assistant uses a wide brush to apply sizing to large uncut sheets of hosho paper in preparation for printing. Behind her, a standing beauty reaches up to hang the damp paper with sizing on a drying line, glancing over her shoulder towards a young girl who holds another sheet at the ready. At the far left, a beauty taking a smoking break appears to be a printer. Behind her, a low table is set up with a red color block resting on a blue cloth for stability, with a large baren (pad of coiled woven bamboo cord used to rub the back of the paper) placed to the side. Shelves to the right of the printing area are stocked with dried pigments in blue and white porcelain bowls and hanging color brushes of various sizes. Lower cabinets next to the printer's table hold a stack of paper, grey and green bowls with mixed colors ready for application, a bowl of nori (rice paste used with the pigments) and an extra baren.

Kunisada certainly was inspired by a triptych of the same subject designed by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) titled Artist, Block Carver, Applying Sizing, from the series, The Cultivation of Brocade Prints, A Famous Product of Edo (Edo meibutsu nishiki-e kosaku: Eshi, hagashi, dosa-biki) published in circa 1803. In comparison of the two compositions, Kunisada adjusted the configuration of the beauties carving and applying sizing and moved them to the right and center sheets while adding more technical details in the area of printer's section which he located to the far left.

While parodies featuring women were popular subjects throughout ukiyo-e (any excuse to portray beauties was justified), it is somewhat mysterious why this delightful composition is comparatively rare. Extant examples are few, and those that survived, all appear to be good impression without showing the typical evidence of wear to the blocks that would indicate a short-lived print run. The only significant variation notable seems to be inconsistent handling of the blue bokashi in the sky seen through the window on the right sheet as found on the example in the collection of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and another in the collection of the Edo Tokyo Museum in Japan.

Sebastian Izzard, Kunisada's World, 1993, pp. 178-179, no. 93/1
Robert Schaap, Kunisada: Imaging Drama and Beauty, 2016, p. 63, no. 34
Art Institute of Chicago, Clarence Buckingham Collection, accession no. 1939.2141 (Utamaro triptych)
The British Museum (britishmuseum.org), museum no. 1907,0531,0.204
Edo Tokyo Museum (ukiyo-e.org, two impressions, one with darker blue sky in right panel)
Legion of Honor, accession no. 1961.66.2 (darker blue sky in right panel)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org), accession no. JP3495a-c

(inv. no. 10-5783)

price: Sold

Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III)
Artist, Block Carver, Applying Sizing, ca. 1803, Art Institute of Chicago


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