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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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Aniline Dyes
Toyohara Kunichika (豊原國周)


Kunichika Aniline dyes were first synthesized in England during the 1850s. They appeared in Japan soon after and were used regularly by the mid-1860s. The intensity of these colors, particularly the reds and purples, were considered garish by many early western collectors and critics, and many still hold that view today. Consequently, a large number of Meiji-period (1868-1912) prints have been rejected primarily due to their "crude" color palette.

When applied by less astute artists, printers, and publishers, the effect of aniline dyes can indeed be rather harsh, and there are many examples in which their indiscriminate use produced a riot of clashing colors. Yet when these colorants were used judiciously, the results were vivid examples of the Japanese quest for expressions of enlightenment and sophistication. In fact, some critics have begun to reassess how Meiji-period printmakers and their patrons understood these aniline dyes, for they most likely appreciated them as colors associated with the progress of a nation intent on modernizing and assimilating progressive aspects of western culture. Aniline dyes were, in one critic's view, kakushin no iro ("colors of progress").

Kunichika kanji Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) is one artist whose works have been closely associated with aniline dyes (to a degree that is somewhat undeserved). His first teacher was [Ichiôsai] Toyohara Chikanobu (dates unknown; personal name Toriyama Shinji), a minor artist of the Hasegawa school working in the Kanô style of painting. (This first Chikanobu should not be confused with the later and better known Chikanobu who was Kunichika's own pupil, [Yôshû] Toyohara Chikanobu, 1838-1912.) Kunichika probably joined the studio of Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) around 1848 when he was 13 years of age, and he ultimately achieved a high ranking within the Utagawa studio.

After the death of Kunisada, Kunichika went on to become the most important designer of actor prints during the Meiji period, while also producing many bijin-ga ("pictures of beautiful women"). He was a prolific artist, one of the last masters of ukiyo-e printmaking. The excellent printing and near-perfect preservation of colors in the print shown above is an example of aniline dyes used in a well-balanced manner. The design was published by Takegawa (Sawamura Seikichi) for the series Junshoku sanjûroku kasen ("Thirty-six Charming Colors of Selected Beautiful Women"). It is dated 3/9/1881, and the block cutter is identified as Gin. The saturated blues, purples, and reds may startle in their intensity but, on the whole, the colors have been used to positive advantage — meant to signify elegance and fashionable modernity. ©2000-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Newland, Amy Reigle: Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master. Toyohara Kunichika, 1835-1900. Leiden, 1999, p. 19.
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