The Nagasaki-born Ryûsai Shigeharu (鉚齋重春), , was a leading printmaker in Osaka in the late 1820s and early 1830s, coinciding with his most productive years, 1828-1832. Shigeharu, a pupil of Ganjôsai [Utagawa] Kunihiro (丸丈斎國廣), published his first print in 1821, signing as "Nagasaki Kunishige" (長崎國重).The earliest recorded instance of his connection with Kunihiro appeared on a print dated 3/1822 when he signed as "Kunishige, pupil (monjin) of Kunihiro." Starting in 1825, he collaborated with Kunihiro on several works. Shigeharu (still signing as Kunishige) also studied with Yanagawa Shigenobu when that Edo artist worked in Osaka from 1822 to 1825. After Yanagawa Shigenobu returned to Edo, Kunishige took the name Ryûsai Shigeharu in 7/1826, which he used until the end of his career.
In several sources from the 1830s-40s, Shigeharu is cited as an important artist and identified as the only full-time professional print designer in Osaka at the time, a notable exception to the standard Kamigata amateur-artist tradition. For example, in the anonymous printed single-sheet broadside Naniwa shoryû gajin meika annai (Guide to the many famous contemporary artists of Osaka, 浪華諸流画人名家案内) circa 1831, Shigeharu is listed first among those producing block copies (hanshita o omo to su). In Naniwa zasshi chimata [machi] no uwasa (A miscellany of gossip about the town of Osaka, 浪華雑誌街能噂), a four-volume novel from 1835 written by Heitei Ginkei and illustrated by Utagawa Sadahiro, offers fictional conversations about citizens of Osaka, including artists. Shigeharu is described as having been in Osaka a long time and being "good at everything."
In 3/1828, Shigeharu produced an ôban-format design for the play Osome Hisamatsu ukina no yomiuri (News of the affair of Osome and Hisamatsu, お染久松色読販)) at the Wakadayû Theater, Osaka, in which Sawamura Gennosuke II performed as both Osome and Hisamatsu using a stage trick called “quick-changes” (hayagawari). In full view of the audience, although often obscured by stage props or black-hooded stage assistants, the actor changed costumes and makeup, and took on new voices, ages, genders, and body language. The example shown here (see image above) has exceptionally fine color and a rarely encountered large left margin for a print from this period.
An unusual series of ôban prints by Shigeharu, his Nijushidô no uchi (Set of twenty-four paragons of filial piety, c. 1829–30), features portrayals of Chinese legendary or historical figures whose self-sacrificing devotion to their parents were models of constancy meant to praise Confucian family and societal values. The episodes are based on a classic text on Confucian filial piety compiled by Guo Jujing (郭居敬) during the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368). The designs may constitute the only surviving examples on these paragons by an Osaka artist and predate Utagawa Kuniyoshi's first and far-better known series (c. 1842–43). Although not often encountered today, Shigeharu’s set must have been popular in its day, as alternate editions exist with color changes and block wear on some surviving impressions. In the example shown below, Dong Yong (董永) kneels before the Heavenly Emperor's daughter who had disguised herself as a homeless woman and helped him weave 300 rolls of silk within a month. Dong sold the silk and used the money to buy his freedom after he enslaved himself to pay for his father's funeral.
Occasionally, the influence of Shijô-style painting can be found in the prints of Shigeharu. A design from 1832 (see image at right) features a gang of rough-looking bandits cueing up behind their leader Jiraiya (自来也), performed by Nakamura Utaemon III (中村歌右衛門) for the play Yaemusubi Jiraiya musubi (The story of Jiraiya at the weir, 柵自来也談) at the Kado Theater, Osaka. The ruffians may seem a bit cartoonish, which is unusual for Osaka single-sheet actor portraiture, but the source of such portrayals can be located in Shijô-Maruyama paintings and prints. Moreover, the figures are decidedly different in their soft coloring compared to the bright saturated printing of Jiraiya and child in deluxe ukiyo-e style. This special deluxe production is enhanced by the imprimatur of the elite block-carver Yama Kasuke () and graced by a poem at the upper left (in silver-color metallic pigment) by the actor Nakamura Utaemon III. © 2019 by John Fiorillo
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