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VJP title Utamaro print showing



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Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1751)


Sukenobu kanji Nishikawa Sukenobu (西川祐信 1671-1751) was an important and influential master of the ukiyo-e school. He was trained in Tosa, Kanô, and ukiyo-e painting styles, and enjoyed notable success as a painter. He produced few, if any, single-sheet prints (ichimai-e), but his production of book illustrations was formidable. His first signed works appeared in 1708, although it is generally accepted that he produced unsigned designs for books from at least 1699 in illustrated fiction known as ukiyo-zôshi ("notes of the floating world") and in yakusha hyôbanki ("actor critiques"). Sukenobu's published books probably number close to 200, with thousands of illustrations on the themes of young women, scenes from everyday life, special contemporary events, and historical tales and legends. The overall quality of his work is very high, with a seemingly unquenchable taste for the leitmotif of bijinga (prints of beautiful women). Sukenobu's virtuosity in presenting different types of charmingly realized and graceful beauties is unsurpassed, and his widespread influence upon later artists, both in Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto region) and Edo (most notably Harunobu), remains undisputed and significant in the history of ukiyo-e.

Sukenobu b/w    Sukenobu color

The print shown on the upper left comes from the Ehon Asakayama ("Picture Book: Mount Asaka"), a one-volume sumizuri-e (carbon black prints) published in 1739 by Kikuya Kihei in Kyoto. There were apparently at least two editions of this work, the earlier one with 24 prints, the later one having the same colophon but with an added preface and six additional images inserted at the beginning. The book comprises single-page and double-page portraits (each page approximately 10" x 7") of women that are considered among the most important of Sukenobu's bijinga. Asakayama may be translated poetically as the "Mountain of Dawn Perfume," a name expressive of the intoxicating "perfume" of the female beauties contained within the book covers.

Single-sheet designs were not common in Kamigata in the 1730s (as they already were in Edo), but Sukenobu's portraits stand very well on their own and suggest a formidable talent that could easily have translated into the ichimai-e format. It is likely that publishing traditions and market forces limited the opportunities for selling single-sheet prints in Kamigata during Sukenobu's working period. Occasionally, we encounter examples of sheets removed from the picture books that were then colored by hand, possibly intended to be passed off as single-sheet works. It is not known for certain what the standard arrangement might have been for hand-coloring sumizuri-e. Many examples were rather crudely done and suggest that publishers contracted with amateur colorists at low rates of compensation. Alternatively, many might have been colored by collectors. A few examples were carefully colored, however, which might imply that the publishers found more skilled colorists, perhaps from their own publishing studio, to color the more expensively produced editions.

In any case, the question arises as to whether such hand coloring added to or subtracted from the effect of the print design. This is a topic still debated among connoisseurs. The print at the upper left is an unaltered impression that remains in good condition. The beauty of the line and the simple but effective use of monochrome printing are representative of the achievement of Japanese printmakers in the sumizuri-e style. The print on the upper right is another impression (unfortunately a bit worn and soiled) with hand coloring. The yellow is well preserved, but the purple (a mixture of red and blue) is nearly entirely faded and the tan (made from red lead) is partly tarnished. Still, the colors provide an idea of the original coloring and suggest the intended effect. Some scholars feel that only in a few cases did hand coloring actually enhance the effect of sumizuri-e designs, and many generally prefer theemphasis on the flowing lines and shades of black and gray of early ukiyo-e. In regard to the present hand-colored Sukenobu, there does seem to be some loss of expressive power as the colors compete with the tonal balance of the original sumizuri-e version. © 1999-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Hillier, J.: The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby's Publications, 1987, Chapter 12 (Sukenobu), pp. 158-173.
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