Utagawa Toyoharu (歌川豊春, 1735-1814) is recognized as the founder of the Utagawa school and for his uki-e ("floating pictures," perspective views: 浮絵). Born in Toyooka, Tajima Province, in western Japan, Toyoharu first studied art in Kyoto with the Kanô painter Tsuruzawa Tangei (鶴沢探鯨 1688-1789), and later in Edo with Toriyama Seiken (鳥山石燕 1712-88). This is mentioned in the Ukiyoeshi Utagawa retsuden (Lives of the ukiyo-e Utagawa masters: 浮世絵師歌川列傳) by Ijima Kyoshin (飯島虛心 1841-1901) from 1894. On some paintings Toyoharu used a seal reading Toriyama Sekien Toyofusa monjin (Student of Toriyama Sekien Toyofusa: 鳥山石燕豊房門人). It seems that Sekien allowed his student to incorporate the character "Toyo" (豊) from his personal name (Toyofusa, 豊房) as part of his art name "Toyoharu" (豊春). Common to most ukiyo-e artists, Toyoharu had many names. His family surname was Tajimaya; his given names were Shôjirô, Shin'emon, and Masaki; his art names were Ichiryûsai, Sen'ô, Senryûsai, and Shôjirô. As for the "Utagawa" art surname, this apparently derived from Toyoharu having taken up residence in Udagawa-chô in the Shiba district of Edo.
Toyoharu apparently began producing designs for woodblock prints around 1768. His early designs show the influence of early-color-print masters such as Suzuki Harunobu, Ippitsusai Bunchô, and Isoda Koryûsai. We can sense Harunobu's looming presence in the chûban print on the right. Here the subject is Hagi (bush clover: 萩) from the series Fûryû Mu Tamagawa (Fashionable six jewel rivers: 風流六玉川), probably from the late 1760s - early 1770s. Toyoharu's faces are not those of Harunobu, but surely the influence is unmistakable. The Mu Tamagawa (六玉川) or (六玉河): "Six Jewel Rivers," also "Six Crystal Rivers," was a popular subject in ukiyo-e prints, depicted both as meisho-e (pictures of famous places: 名所絵) and as often playful mitate-e (analogue pictures: 見立絵). The rivers are found in six different provinces, and each is each associated with specific classical poems. The subject of Mu Tamagawa might have developed as a response to the building of the great aqueduct to draw water from the Tamagawa in Musashi, begun in 1652 and completed in 1654, while the iconography of the six Tamagawa was possibly the result of creating decorations for Edo Castle to commemorate the project. The six jewel rivers were: (1) Ide (or Hagi) no Tamagawa in Yamashiro, (2) Mishima (or Tôi or Kinuta) no Tamagawa in Settsu, (3) Noji no Tamagawa in Ômi, (4) Kôya no Tamagawa in Kii, (5) Chôfu no Tamagawa in Musashi, and (6) Noda (or Chidori) no Tamagawa in Mutsu.
Another example of early influence, that of Koryûsai, may be found in a hashira-e design likely from the early 1770s. As shown on the left, the tall, narrow format presented a challenge in composition, but several artists excelled at such designs (Harunobu, Bunchô, Koryûsai, Kiyonaga, Utamaro, and others). It would appear that Toyoharu could be added to this list, although the number of extant examples is exceedingly small. Here, the subject is indeed a mitate, a light-hearted comparison between the classical figures Kanzan (寒山 Ch; Hanshan) and Jittoku (拾得 Ch: Shide) with modern-day young lovers strolling beneath a flowering cherry tree. Hanshan and Shide were semi-legendary, Tang dynasty, Zen (禅 Ch: Chan) eccentrics who were frequently depicted in Chinese and Japanese ink painting. They came to be regarded as incarnations of the bodhisattvas Monju (文殊 Sk: Manjusri) and Fugen (普賢 Sk: Samantabhadra), respectively. Kanzan frequently holds a scroll, presumably of his poetry. Toyoharu shows the lovers each holding one end of a long scroll inscribed with texts or poems.
Toyoharu designed very few ôban-format prints. A rare example, from the 1780s, thus late in his career, is a portrayal of the courtesan Machizuru (まち鶴) of the Ebiya (海老や内) shown on the right. Dressed in casual robes, she appears to be in her private quarters amusing herself by unwinding a yellow thread. Her face is distinctive, unlike those of the more celebrated masters of female portraiture in the 1780s-90s (particularly Kiyonaga and Utamaro); however, in responding to the current trend of designing prints featuring beauties in ôkubi-e ("large-head" pictures: 大首絵) compositions, Toyoharu did not slavishly copy his contemporaries in the rendering of the face. The sheet is large in the vertical dimension (385 x 243 mm), but trimmed slightly in width, and it is faded and toned. Still, what remains provides some idea of the colorful charm that must have once graced this half-length figure.
Uki-e (floating pictures: 浮絵 or 浮繪) were perspective pictures modeled after one-point vanishing perspective learned from the West. The term uki-e become popular because the foreground seemed to float before the receding space. In these pictures, the horizon line was typically low and the receding space deep and sharply converged. Also called kubomi-e (sunken pictures: 窪み絵) for the apparent concavity of space, uki-e included both interior and landscape views. The first known uki-e date from c. 1739-40, possibly by Torii Kiyotada (鳥居清忠 act. c. 1720–50), and immediately thereafter by Okumura Masanobu (奥村政信 1686-1768). Primary sources of inspiration were most likely imported Chinese instruction books of the 1730s based on European linear-perspective manuals, such as the Shih-hsüeh ching-yün (Detailed Guide to the Study of Vision, 2nd ed., Beijing, 1735). Ukiyo-e artists of the 1740s had an imperfect understanding of European drawing principles; their uki-e often betray multiple vanishing points, inconsistent linear projections, exaggerated depth, and weak integration between interior and exterior scenes. Further development of uki-e came in the late 1750s-early 1760s with the megane-e ("spectacle [eyeglasses] pictures": 眼鏡絵) of Maruyama Ôkyo (圓山應舉 1733-95), images viewed through an apparatus to heighten an illusion of depth created by using Western techniques of perspective and shading. Ôkyo made facsimile copies and adaptations of Chinese optical views from Suzhou (in turn based on European vues d’optique). His examples are the earliest extant Japanese megane-e. A surviving lacquered-wood nozokibako (peep-box: 覗箱), probably from circa 1764 to 1781, now in the Kobe City Museum, is displayed below left with a uki-e by Toyoharu titled Oranda yukimi no zu (Snowy view of Holland: 阿蘭陀雨見之図). To observe the scene in the nozokibako, the print would be inserted inside the box and viewed through the convex lens on the front panel. The lens enlarged the image and so enhanced the sense of three-dimensional perspective as drawn by the artist.
By the 1770s, Toyoharu had learned perspectival techniques from copies of Maruyama Ôkyo's megane-e, often combining uki-e with meisho (famous places: 名所), kabuki or pleasure-house interiors, and celebrated historical tales (e.g., Ichinotani kassen) and dramas (e.g., Kanadehon chûshingura). One of Toyoharu's meisho uki-e is illustrated at the top of this page. It is titled Masaki no zu, yon (No. 4, View of Masaki: 真崎之図 四), c. 1770s, from the series Edo meisho hachigaseki (Eight famous sites of Edo: 江戸名所八ヶ蹟). This view presents a river receding rather dramatically into the distance, a typical application of perspective in ukiyo-e prints during the 18th century. Toyoharu depicted a lively scene, with nearly 30 boats navigating up and down and across the waterway, transporting goods and ferrying passengers. Crowds of pedestrians move along past shops and restaurants, as well as a torii (Shinto shrine gate: 鳥居) midway down the embankment on the left. The unusual framing device of a tsuitate (portable painted screen on a stand: 衝立) with iron ornaments was used for all eight images in the series.
Toyoharu is often given credit for "mastering" single-point vanishing perspective, thereby influencing later developments in 19th-century fûkei-ga (landscape pictures: 風景画) that also relied on the Western mode. While Toyoharu's contribution may not be doubted, his use of perspective still showed inaccuracies. It was, indeed, Toyoharu's contemporary Shiba Kôkan (司馬江漢 1747-1818) who produced true linear-perspective prints as early as 1770 in his forgeries of certain Harunobu's nishiki-e (錦絵 color woodblock prints, signing as "Harunobu"), as well as his own designs (signing as himself under the art name "Harushige"). He also produced paintings and copper-plate uki-e.
The sub-genre of so-called Oranda uki-e (Dutch perspective pictures: 阿蘭陀浮絵) offered a popular variant on perspective pictures, given the Japanese fascination with the West. They were one type of kômôga ("red-hair pictures": 紅毛画), referring to art works imported by the Dutch who traded in Nagasaki as well as to Western civilization in general. What was especially interesting to ukiyo-e artists such as Toyoharu was the illusory three-dimensional realism found in Western paintings and prints. Toyoharu might have been the first to create prints that were adapted directly from European prints, rather than from Chinese copies of European etchings. Aside from the example shown immediately above in the nozokibako, a typical design in this mode is shown below. Toyoharu's Senadori no zu (A view of fishing: すなどりの図) is from his series Oranda uki-e (Dutch perspective pictures: 阿蘭陀浮絵). It appears to have been a loose copy after an engraving by the Italian artist Giuseppe Zocchi (1711-1767) titled Veduta di una parte di Firenze presa fuori della Porta alla Croce presso al Fiume Arno (View of a part of Florence taken outside the Porta alla Croce near the Arno River) from a portfolio with 24 plates showing views of that city; see second image below. Japanese artists, forbidden to travel before the opening of the country to the West, had to rely upon imported books, paintings, and intaglio prints for their knowledge of European and North American cities. In the example below, Toyoharu might not have realized that the city was Florence, Italy. The "oranda" in the title was meant merely to signal a scene of a city in the West. Simplified though the scene might be, Toyoharu nevertheless rendered the receding perspective with enough accuracy to intrigue the Japanese print buyers of his day.
Toyoharu also designed uki-e associated with the kabuki theater in Edo. The Sakai-chô (境町) and Fukiya-chô (葺屋町) quarters were the center of Edo's theater district, which was especially lively on the night of kaomise ("face showing," the opening ceremony of the Kabuki season: 顔見世). In the horizontal ôban image below, Toyoharu has titled the print Uki-e Sakai-chô Fukiya-chô kaomise yo shibai no zu (Perspective view of the theaters in Sakai-chô and Fukiya-chô on opening night: 浮絵境町葺屋町顔見世夜芝居之図). Excited theater patrons crowd the avenue as they make their way toward various theaters, food stalls, and teahouses in the entertainment district. Street vendors, porters, and servants lift their goods and boxes high above the passersby. The yagura (drum towers or boxed turrets: 櫓) over the entrances of the different theaters and their e-kanban can be seen at the second-storey levels. Later impressions of Toyoharu's design exist with worn keyblock lines (indicating thousands of impressions were made) and a light gray sky lacking the drama, not to mention the appropriateness, of the black sky shown here.
Toyoharu seems to have designed very few ehon (woodblock-printed illustrated books: 絵本), as only two titles have been documented. As for single-sheet prints, Toyoharu virtually ceased designing prints sometime in the 1780s, although he did produce a few banzuke (kabuki theater programs or playbills: 番付) in the late 1790s and some e-kanban (picture signboards: 絵看板) mounted on theater facades or drum towers above the entrances. Otherwise, he focused on paintings, including bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画). Notable among these is a set of three hanging scrolls depicting courtesans as stand-ins for the classical theme of Setsugekka (Snow, moon, flowers: 雪月花). A frequently encountered subject in Japanese art and literature, setsugekka serves as an aesthetic embodiment of the Japanese view of nature and the belief in its everlasting beauty. Conventionally, aspects representing the changing seasons are presented in scenes featuring snow (symbolizing not only the winter season but also a prelude to rebirth), the moon (exemplifying a year-round constant), and flowers (recalling the four seasons as well as the cycle of life). However, in ukiyo-e prints and paintings, the device used was often mitate or analogs in which a classical theme was paired up with or evoked through contemporary figures or events.
In Toyoharu's triad of paintings, two of the pleasure women would have plied their trade in okabasho ("hill places": 岡場所), unlicensed brothel districts: (1R-2R) Fukugawa (深川) and Shinagawa (品川). The third courtesan worked in the officially sanctioned Yoshiwara (葭原 later 吉原). Reading the images (shown below) from right to left in the Japanese manner, the far right image features a Fukugawa courtesan representing the "snow" theme. She wears padded robes suitable for winter, which is signaled by the hibachi ("fire bowl," a charcoal brazier: 火鉢) seen behind her. A pile of snow is visible on a lacquer serving tray; presumably, the snow will be shaped into a snow-rabbit. There is also a hagiota (battledore: 羽子板) nearly touching her hem. If we place the Moon subject at the far left to balance the triptych, the middle theme would be "flowers." This curtesan holds an ôgi (folding fan: 扇) decorated with sakura (cherry blossoms: 桜 or 櫻); her black robe is patterned with kujaku no hane (peacock feathers: 孔雀の羽). The beauty on the far left was a denizen of Shinagawa, an area known not only for unlicensed brothels but also for moon-viewing in the eighth lunar month. The autumn grasses arranged in the tall vase behind her allude to the moon. Her figure is impossibly slim and tall, a stylistic rendering of the female form found in some bijinga by Kiyonaga and, early in his career, Utamaro.
It is said that in 1796, Toyoharu was appointed head of painters engaged in restoring the Tokugawa Shrine in Nikkô (the Nikkô Tôshô-gû, 日光東照宮). He died at the age of 80. His Buddhist name is Utagawa-in Toyoharu Nichiyô Shinji (歌川院豊春日要居士), and he is buried on the grounds of the Nichiren temple Honkyôji (本経寺) in Ikebukuro (池袋), Toshima (豊島区) ward, Tokyo.