Matsumoto Koshiro VII as Benkei in Kanjicho
ink and color on silk, with highlights in gold pigment, with silk mounting and ceramic rollers decorated with red crackle, with unsigned storage box; signed at lower right, Shunsen, with artist's seal Shunsen, n.d., ca. 1935-1950
painting: 50 by 16 1/8 in., 127 by 41 cm
overall: 85 by 20 3/4 in., 216 by 52.7 cm
A full-figure portrait of the actor wearing a black haori with large white katazuri tassels and decorated with orange stylized characters over a grey, brown and blue plaid kimono with brocade trim. His small black hat of the style associated with yamabushi (Buddhist forest priests) is secured by a white katazuri cord. His make-up is in natural skin tones with dark highlights around his eyes and brows. The upper area of the composition is framed with the draping of a traditional color blocks curtain associated with a kabuki performance.
The actor Matsumoto Koshirô VII (1870-1949) is in the role of Benkei from the classic play Kanjincho ('The donors list'). First staged in 1840, it remains the most popular play in the kabuki repertoire even today. The Matsumoto Koshiro line of actors are famed for their portrayals of Benkei, a character which is considered one of the most challenging and important aragoto (lit. 'rough stuff') roles in kabuki.
In the story, Benkei, the former priest-warrior and loyal retainer of Yoshitsune (disguised as a porter) encounters Togashi, a samurai at a blockade erected for the purpose of capturing Yoshitsune, and must convince him that he and his traveling companions are priests en route to collect donated funds for a temple. Togashi, impressed by Benkei's poise, but skeptical of his story, requests to see the kanjincho, the list of contributors from which the play derives its title. Benkei produces a scroll and begins to read names, but Togashi manages to see that the scroll is blank. One of Togashi's men spots Yoshitsune in his disguise as the porter and suggests that he may be the fugitive, but the quick-thinking Benkei puts on a convincing show of actually striking Yoshitsune, his lord and master, with a stick to maintain the ruse.
The demanding role was closely associated with Koshiro VII, who performed it over 1600 times in his lifetime. There are three known woodblock prints by Natori Shunsen depicting Koshiro VII as Benkei which were commissioned by actors for distribution by their fan clubs, including one which is dated to circa 1935. A full-length painting from 1945 depicting Benkei holding the subscription list with similar teatment to his costume is illustrated in Kozo Yamada's catalogue raisonne; while the 1991 retrospective exhibition catalogue illustrates a 1950 bust portrait painting of the same subject with a similar signature and the same seal as that of this example.
Yamaguchi Keizoro, Natori Shunsen (exhibition catalogue), Kushigata, 1991, no. 3 (1950 painting)
Kozo Yamada, Shunsen Natori: Collection of the Kushigata Shunsen Museum of Art, 2002, p. 76, cat. no. 3 (1945 painting)
Lucie Folan, Stars of the Tokyo Stage: Natori Shunsen's Kabuki Actor Prints, National Gallery of Australia, 2012, pp. 130-131, (1935 privately published diptych print)
(inv. no. 10-4990)
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