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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi was an active Japanese artist from 1839 to 1893.  He also created woodblock prints under the assumed name of Taiso Yoshitoshi.  Regardless of the name used, this master was deemed one of the greatest innovators and creative geniuses of the Ukiyo-e world of art.  When he died, he penned a special Haiku poem that read, “Holding back the night - with its increasing brilliance – the summer moon”. 

While some woodblock print artists had a short career, Yoshitoshi’s life of painting stretched out over two eras, which included the latter old feudal Japan years, as well as the early new modern Japan years.  Because of this, his work was diverse.  Yoshitoshi was extremely interested in capturing things from the new Japan but also wanted to make sure he continued to show reverence to the old. 

One of the legends left behind was his fight with technology, especially in his later years.  For instance, most of the Japanese woodblock print artists were turning to new methods of technology, something Yoshitoshi was not interested in learning.  For instance, while others were using lithography and photography, Yoshitoshi continued using ancient methods of painting.  Determined to keep tradition alive, Yoshitoshi pushed hard until his death to bring this art form to light, which he did. 

Yoshitoshi was born in Edo, which is today’s Tokyo.  Born to a rich merchant father who used his wealth to gain samurai status, Yoshitoshi was sent to live with his uncle at the age of three.  This uncle had no children so he took special care and interest in Yoshitoshi’s life.  Known early in life as Owariya Yonejiro, his name was changed when he went to work for Kuniyoshi who was an exceptional Japanese woodblock print master.  Yoshitoshi began his apprenticeship in 1850 when he was just 11 years of age.  Yoshitoshi was never officially listed as Kuniyoshi’s successor although he was rated as his top student. 

Yoshitoshi created his first woodblock print in 1853.  Then for several years, nothing more was seen.  It is believed by historians that illness suffered by Kuniyoshi was the reason.  Unfortunately, his beloved master died in 1861 at which time Yoshitoshi produced 44 prints over the next year.  If you were to look at the early creations, you would notice much violence and death depicted.  Again, historians believe this was directly the result of the old feudal Japan collapsing around him. 

From 1862 to 1869, fame followed Yoshitoshi, as he produced some incredible woodblock prints.  However, because so much of his work related to violence, he stopped receiving commissions for his work.  Because of this, he was overcome with depression in 1871.  Sadly, Yoshitoshi lived in filth, although he stayed faithful to his mistress named Okoto.  To help bring in money, his mistress had to sell her personal belongings.  They were so poor that planks in the floor were burned for warmth. 

By 1873, things started to turn around for Yoshitoshi.  He changed his attitude and started creating more woodblock prints.  Realizing his name had a bad connotation to it, he changed it to the family name of Taiso, which interestingly, translates in English to “great resurrection”  As newspapers were common now, Yoshitoshi was given the opportunity to create a special print for one.  Even with his new focus on painting, he and his mistress stayed poor.  To keep the two alive, she begin working in a brothel until 1876. 

Then in 1877, the Satsuma Rebellion, a cause trying to stop the new Japan, began.  With this, woodblock prints, especially those made with old techniques were extremely popular and in high demand.  This opened a new door for Yoshitoshi, bringing to him wealth.  This same year, Yoshitoshi took a new mistress by the name of Oraku who also sold her personal possessions, as a means of supporting him.  One year later, the two broke up with her also going to work for a brothel house. 

From 1877 to 1880, the well-known woodblock print artists had all passed away.  This meant that the art was fading while the new Japan was pressing in.  Not giving up on his techniques and standards, he continued his work.  Then in 1880, he met Sakamaki Taiko, having two children.  Even though the two married four years later, he still piddled with his art.  However, his wife’s love and encouragement had a positive influence on him. 

Now more settled, Yoshitoshi spent his latter years being highly production.  In fact, from 1885 to 1892, he painted two magnificent series, one called New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts and One Hundred Aspects of the Moon.  Each of these series was a depiction of Kabuki actors, along with theatrical scenes.  To maintain some of old Japan’s artful traditions, he worked along side his friend and actor, Danjuro. 

Even with his zest for life and determination to keep old Japan alive, he began to suffer mental health problems, often suffering from delusions.  As he grew worse, the only resolution was to have him committed to a special facility for the mentally ill.  Rather than staying and getting help, Yoshitoshi left in 1892 and rented rooms.  Just three weeks after being out of the hospital, Yoshitoshi died at the age of 53 from a cerebral hemorrhage. 

While Yoshitoshi’s fame was lost for many years, it was revisited in 1970.  What current art masters discovered was the immense depth of detailing, coupled with quality and originality.  While he never had the chance to realize, Yoshitoshi did in fact keep the old feudal Japan alive, which is appreciated around the world to this day.

Read more about Japanese Woodblock Prints:
  Japanese Woodblock Prints   Ukiyo-e   Toyokuni Utagawa   Eisen Kikugawa   Hiroshige Ando   Utamaro Kitigawa


Visit our online store for dozens of Japanese Woodblock Prints

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The Great Wave by Hokusai
The Great Wave by Hokusai
Kabuki by Utagawa
Kabuki by Utagawa
3 Beauties by Utamaro
3 Beauties by Utamaro
General in Battle by Utagawa
General in Battle by Utagawa
Mt Fuji by Hiroshige
Mt Fuji by Hiroshige


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