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VJP title Utamaro print showing



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Ippitsusai Bunchô (act. c. 1755 - c. 1790)


buncho_tozo buncho_kanji Bunchô's life, like that of so many other ukiyo-e artists, is shrouded in mystery. We do not know his date of birth, although the year of his death may be estimated from an undated commemorative surimono designed by Kubo Shunman (1757-1820) circa late 1790s, who stated that Bunchô had died seven years earlier. This would suggest his death occurred in the early 1790s. He might have studied with a minor Kanô school artist named Ishikawa Yukimoto.

We do know that Bunchô provided illustrations for a book of fiction as early as 1755, and there is a surviving calendar print (egoyomi) from 1790, but nearly every surviving work can be dated to a much shorter period between 1766 and 1773. Bunchô was a print designer and painter of unique sensibilities, working for a brief time in the shadow of Suzuki Harunobu, but generally avoiding mere derivations of that master's style.

Various scholars have identified what might be called an "astringent" quality in Bunchô's drawing. His portraits of women or onnagata (male kabuki actors in female roles) are usually distinguishable from similar works by Harunobu or Katsukawa Shunshô. His designs certainly have a less lyrical quality than do Harunobu's, and a sharper, somewhat more intense aspect compared to Shunshô's. The women in Bunchô's prints have faces that are narrow and angular, with longer noses and small, slanted eyes. His portraits of actors in male roles are, in general, less animated and less aggressive than Shunshô's. Overall, Bunchô's style may appear a bit austere and remote. Those who appreciate Bunchô's work rate him as one of the most accomplished masters of the ukiyo-e school.

buncho_letter Bunchô collaborated with other artists during his career, including Harunobu, Isoda Koryûsai, and Shunshô. With the latter he produced one of the most important books in the history of ukiyo-e, the celebrated Ehon butai ôgi ("Picture Book of Stage Fans") published in three volumes by Kariganeya Ihei and engraved by Endo Matsugorô in 1770. With this book Shunshô and Bunchô demonstrated their seminal and widely influential nigao ("likenesses") for actor portraiture.

One sheet designed by Bunchô is shown at the top right, signed with a seal based on his family name, which reads Mori uji. It is a portrait of Azuma Tôzô II in the role of Sonoe (named on the middle left and lower right, respectively, though difficult to see due to the fading of the blue background). It is a good example of Bunchô's distinctive style of 'onnagata' portraiture at the start of the 1770s.

The print at the lower left depicts a courtesan (the name seems to read Utanosuke) from the Ebiya brothel (Ebiya uchi Utanosuke), one of at least 17 known hosoban-format designs from the series Fûji-bumi ("Folded Love-letters"), circa 1769-70. The decorative cartouches on all the prints in this series are drawn in the form of a folded and knotted love-letter, with inscriptions of the courtesans' names and their houses. Each cartouche also contains a salutation that reads on-tono ("To my patron"), along with words addressing the communication in the form of a love letter from a woman (mairase-soro). Bunchô used a similar cartouche motif for another series, which was in chûban format and titled Sugata hakkei ("Eight Views of Likenesses").

In the present design, Utanosuke clenches with her teeth a folded love-letter while she adjusts the obi of her kamuro (young attendant). No doubt the kamuro will soon deliver the letter to her mistress's lover. In the background we can see a painting of Mount Fuji and a large chest-on-chest with double doors (ryôbiraki kasane-dansu) and central roundel hardware (kanagu) bearing the orange-blossom emblem of the Ichimura-za kabuki theater and the actors of the Ichimura family. The colors are partly faded in this example, with the reds and purples on the robes noticeably altered. The tan (red led pigment) used for the chest and the framing remains relatively unchanged, however, as it was far more colorfast. Bunchô's observation of this domestic moment offers a mildly voyeuristic glimpse in the private life of a courtesan, one of the perennially popular subjects in ukiyo-e prints. © 2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Clark, T. and Ueda, O: The Actor's Image: Print Makers of the Katsukawa School. Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, pp. 23-25, 70-71, and 366-367.
  • Kunsthandel Kleifisch: Auktion 61, November 1996, no. 689.
  • Riccar Art Museum (Eds.): Exhibition of Ukiyo-e by Ippitsusai Bunchô. Tokyo 1978.
  • Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum (Eds.): Ippitsusai Bunchô. Tokyo: Waseda University, 1991.
  • Waterhouse, D.: Harunobu and His Age. British Museum, 1964, pp. 30 and 42-57.
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