Utagawa Toyokuni

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Utagawa Toyokuni was one of the great ukiyo-e artists of the late 18th to early 19th centuries, and was the head of the Utagawa school for a time.

Born in Edo in 1769 the son of doll/puppet maker Kurahashi Gorôbei, he spent his childhood living in the neighborhood near Shiba Shinmei Shrine (also known as Shiba Daijingû).

In his mid-teens he began to study painting and woodblock design under Utagawa Toyoharu. His oldest known print to be published is one from 1785, depicting kabuki actor Mimasu Tokujirô I as a female ashigaru.

Toyokuni then went on to produce privately commissioned surimono, illustrations for kibyôshi fiction volumes, and calendars, among other works. Beginning in the Kansei era (1789-1801) he produced numerous bijinga (images of beautiful women). He also produced a great many kabuki prints, including triptychs of the interior of the Nakamura-za in which the center print could be swapped out for any number of variants, changing the play or scene being performed while keeping the left and prints (showing the audience members) the same. Toyokuni produced many polyptychs of scenes elsewhere in and around Edo as well.

In 1804/5, Toyokuni fell afoul of the authorities and was sentenced to fifty days of manacles and house arrest for his involvement in an Ehon Taikôki ("Illustrated Record of Hideyoshi") project; Katsukawa Shun'ei was arrested and sentenced similarly for his involvement in the project as well. Unlike Utamaro, however, whose arrest and manacling around this same time is said to have broken his spirit and contributed to his death, Toyokuni survived the sentence and returned to active involvement in publishing.

Utagawa Kunisada took the name Toyokuni (III) in 1844.


  • Gallery labels, Ôta Memorial Museum of Art.