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VJP title Utamaro print showing



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Utagawa Kunimasu (active c. 1834-1852)


Kunimasu kanji Utagawa Kunimasu (formerly Sadamasu; active late 1820s-early 1850s) was said to be a wealthy real estate owner in the Semba district of Osaka who developed his own school of printmaking. He was a fine artist who has been credited with developing the fully mature Osaka style of chûban format actor bust portraits (ôkubi-e, or "large head prints"), designing his first example around 1837. (The earliest known single-sheet chûban in a well-developed Osaka style were designed by Shôkôsai Hanbei (active c. 1795-1809), two full-length designs published in 9/1799.) Prints by Kunimasu are encountered less often than those by many other Osaka artists, although they are not rare. He was a friend and patron of Hirosada and various other artists. Hirosada seems to have considered Kunimasu his teacher, or at least a significant collaborator, although the Edo master Kunisada (1786-1865) played a more important role as a teacher to both these artists. Hirosada traveled to Edo around 1826-27 to study with Kunisada, and Kunimasu followed around 1830; they returned together to Osaka in 1834. In 1852 both Kunimasu and Hirosada revisited Edo and collaborated on a series of half-length actor portraits by Kunisada titled Edo murasaki gojûyonchô ("Fifty-four Chapters of Edo Purple"). After this trip Kunimasu apparently gave up print design for painting.

Kunimasu Seisuiki

Along with Hirosada, who was the most important and prolific mid-nineteenth century printmaker in Osaka, Kunimasu explored the psychology and emotions portrayed by actors on the kabuki stage. Hirosada took this approach to its greatest extent in mid-nineteenth century Osaka printmaking, expressing the psychology of stage performance through powerful and varied physiognomies and vivid or unusual placements of the figures in his compositions. It was one of Hirosada's important contributions to ukiyo-e, and Kunimasu played a role in developing this approach toward actor portraiture.

An example by Kunimasu is shown above, a chûban triptych without a publisher's mark, possibly indicating that the wealthy Kunimasu paid for or subsidized the production himself. The scene depicts, right to left, the actors Jitsukawa Ensaburô I as Heiji Kagetaka, Ichikawa Shikô I as Kajiwara Genta Kagesue, and Arashi Sanemon IX as Koshimoto Chidori in the play Hiragana seisuiki ("Simple Chronicle of the Fortunes of the Heike and Genji"), performed in 5/1848 at the Wakadayû Theater, Osaka. The design bears the series title Hincho gishiden ("Tales of Honor and Fidelity in Our Country") and is signed Sadamasu aratame Kunimasu ("Sadamasu changing to Kunimasu"), indicating that by including the character Kuni, he was changing his studio name in honor of his teacher Utagawa Kunisada's name change four years earlier in 1844 (from Kunisada to Toyokuni). The play was based on the medieval tale (called the Genpei seisuiki) of the wars between the Heike and Genji clans in 1184. Chidori was a maid in the Kajiwara family who loved Genta, but his younger brother Kagetaka also loved her. Genta is disowned by his mother when he is accused by Kagetaka of cowardice in battle, and he runs off with Chidori, who later becomes a courtesan named Umegae as she tries to support her lover in exile. (For another scene from this play, see the diptych on the Hirosada page.)

Kunimasu's triptych presents an expressive tableaux of the lovers separated by the rival brother, whose figure is closer to the picture plane than the other two figures. The printing was in the deluxe style. Metallic pigments, mica, embossing, and pattern-burnishing were used along with gradated shading, especially on the left and right sheets where intricate design motifs were enhanced with delicate variations of hue (see Kunimasu Details). Specimens such as this triptych offer evidence of the remarkable technical skills of Osaka carvers and printers. There is a spirit of mastery in the precision and finely tuned control that these artisans employed as they translated the artist's drawings and color indications into prints. Such works of art are among the gems of ukiyo-e. © 1999-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Halford, A. & G.: The Kabuki Handbook. Rutland VT: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 52-62.
  • Keyes, R.: Hirosada - Osaka Printmaker, Long Beach 1984, pp. 13-14, 22-23, and notes 24-25.
  • Keyes, R. and Mizushima, K.: The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, p. 234.
  • Leiter, S.: The Kabuki Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood, 1979, pp. 120-121.
  • Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum (commentaries by S. Matsudaira): Kamigata Prints in the Former Period: Part I, Vol. 4. Tokyo 1995, pl. 4-011 and 4-012.
  • Van Doesburg, J.: "Utagawa Sadamasu, Creator of the Osaka Chûban Style," in: Andon, Vol. 36, no. 4, 1989, pp. 111-120 and fig. 3.
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