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Utamaro print showing


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Torii Kiyonaga (鳥居清長)


Kiyonaga hosoban actorsTorii Kiyonaga (鳥居清長), the son of a book dealer in Edo, was adopted into the Torii family by the print artist Torii Kiyomitsu I (鳥居 清満, 1735-85), the third head of the school. After Kiyomitsu's death, it was decided that his son Kiyotsune (鳥居清経) was not worthy to succeed his biological father, and so by 1787, Kiyonaga assumed the leadership of the Torii school, becoming its fourth head and last major artist of the lineage.

Kiyonaga has long been considered one of the masters of the full-color woodblock print (nishiki-e: 錦絵) and, in particular, of bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画). He also produced paintings, book illustrations, banzuke (theater playbills: 番付), and shunga ("spring pictures" or erotica: 春画). Kiyonaga's drawing of women in the 1780s is decidedly different from earlier typologies, such as the child-like beauties of Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木春信 c. 1725-1770), or the somewhat earthier women of Isoda Kôryûsai (礒田湖龍齋 1735-1790). The feminine aspect in Kiyonaga's oeuvre offers up a more substantial and seemingly aristocratic class of women.

For actor prints during his early years, Kiyonaga followed the lead of the Katsukawa artists (specifically Katsukawa Shunshô and later Katsukawa Shunei) in the portrayal of actors on stage, adopting their manner of stylized but fairly realistic nigao (facial likenesses: 似顔). In the example shown here, circa late 1770s, the faces of the actors Ichikawa Monnosuke II (市川門之助) and Segawa Kikunojô III (瀬川菊之亟) are distinctly different from each other and specific enough for easy identification, a requirement for successful print sales to kabuki enthusiasts. Besides the seemingly "true to life" faces, the mon (acting crests: 紋) on their robes were unique to each of the stage idols. Kiyonaga, in his later years, continued occasionally with actor-print compositions. The images from his ôban series of degatari-zu ("pictures of narrators' appearance": 出語り図), numbering more than 40 designs portraying actors in performance accompanied by chanters and musicians, were especially favored by the print-buying public and represent a significant contribution to the development of ukiyo-e actor prints (yakusha-e: 役者絵).

In regard to bijinga, Kiyonaga, at first, rendered his beauties in a manner remiscent of Isoda Kôryûsai. This is evident in Kiyonaga's portrayal of two geisha and an attendant from a chûban-format design titled the "Ninth Month" (Kikuzuki: きく月) in the series Fûryû jûni kikô (Fashionable scenes from the twelve months: 風流十二気候), circa 1779 (see image below). The short stature of these women and their full body types (plumper than Harunobu's ethereal fantasies) conform with the Kôryûsai aesthetic. Moreover, Kiyonaga contributed 11 designs to Koryûsai's extended series titled Hinagata wakana no hatsu moyo (Patterns for New Year fashions, fresh as young leaves: 雛形若菜の初模様), published in the ôban format by Nishimura Yohachi (Eijûdô); a few were issued by Watanabe Shôzaburô. Another influence on the early works of Kiyonaga was the oeuvre of Kitao Shigemasa (北尾重政 1739-1820).

Torii Kiyonaga: Ninth Month — Two geisha with attendant, c. 1779
Series: Fûryû jûni kikô (Fashionable scenes from the twelve months: 風流十二気候)
Woodblock print, chûban (260 x 187 mm)

The breakthrough for Kiyonaga came in the 1780s when he and his publishers turned to the larger ôban format. Correspondingly, and rather splendidly, Kiyonaga's female figures became taller and slimmer, taking on a stately aura. They reigned supreme as the quintessential fantasy women of the Tenmei era (天明時代 I/24/1781 - I/25/1789). Moreover, Kiyonaga also began expanding his compositions into diptychs and triptychs, producing a number of masterpieces in this mode for the bijinga genre. They are characterized by, among other things, an appealing rhythm among the figures, with varying amplitudes and postures. Many of these polyptychs have effectively rendered landscape backgrounds as well.

Kiyonaga diptych
Torii Kiyonaga: Courtesans, geisha, and male patrons at a moonlit banquet (月見の宴)
Series: Minami jûni kô (Twelve months in the south: 美南見十二候), 1784
Woodblock print, ôban diptych (390 x 525 mm)

In the fine ôban diptych shown above, from 1784, nine women can be seen entertaining three male guests during a banquet for the eighth month (八月) in another calendrically arranged series titled Minami jûni kô (Twelve months in the south: 美南見十二候). The sheets do not have publisher seals. Given the variety of poses, activities portrayed, and new typology for Kiyonaga's beauties, this is one of the artist's unquestioned masterworks. In fact, the entire series may be counted among Kiyonaga's finest works. The slim and exceedingly tall beauties seen on the right sheet of the diptych can be found in similar guises in many other designs by Kiyonaga, all contributing to a fashionable vision of feminine allure in ukiyo ("floating world": 浮世) culture. These women symbolized an up-to-date iki (refinement: 粋 or 粹) — they were the smart, sexy, chic, and spirited women of the day.

Torii Kiyonaga: Visiting a teahouse near a shrine to arrange a marriage, c. 1779
Woodblock print, ôban (393 x 260 mm)

Another example from the same year, a single ôban sheet, is shown immediately above. Aside from the fashionable new feminine forms, there is, compared to earlier works by Kiyonaga and the previously discussed chûban design, an adjusted spacing whereby overlap of the female figures has now given way to a more open positioning, with the beauties located more or less within their own vertical zones. The group of four women and a male attendant are said to be approaching a teahouse near a shrine to conduct an interview on temple grounds for the purpose of working out a marriage arrangement.

By the early 1790s, Kiyonaga's production of prints fell precipitously. Even so, his extant oeuvre exerted influence in the design of bijinga over the next generation of artists, including Katsukawa Shunchô (勝川春湖 active c. 1783-95), Katsukawa Shunzan (勝川春山 active c. 1782–1798), Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿 c. 1753-1806), and Kitao Masunobu (北尾政寅 1761-1816; non de plume Santô Kyôden 山東京伝). © 2001-2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Brea, L. and Kondo, E.: Ukiyo-e Prints and Paintings: From the Early Masters to Shunshô. Genoa: Edoardo Chiossone Civic Museum of Oriental Art, 1980.
  • Kiyonaga. Ukiyo-e taikei (Great Collection of Prints from the Floating World — Kiyonaga: 浮世絵大系 清長), vol. 4. Tokyo: Sueisha, 1975.
  • Swinton, E., The Women of the Pleasure Quarter: Japanese Paintings and Prints of the Floating World. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996
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