of the greatest printmakers of the 18th century
was Toyokuni Utagawa. Known
for his ukiyo-e (printmaking) of actors and beautiful women,
he has best influenced the generation of ukiyo-e designers
that followed him. He
was the head of his school Utagawa.
This was a school that was composed of Japanese
printmakers that are also commonly called woodblock artists.
His pupils knew Utagawa as “Toyokuni
The reason was so that he could be distinguished from
the rest of his students who followed quite closely in his
was born in 1769 and was the son of a doll carver and puppet
maker -Kurohashi Gorobei.
By the age of 14, Toyokuni was apprenticed to a
trusted friend of his father’s.
This man was Toyoharu Utagawa and was the head of the
Utagawa household. Toyokuni
studied printmaking, and as his career began he spent most
of his concentration on the images of beautiful women; this
is known as bijin-ga. Toyokuni’s
early works were known to be influenced by Shigemasa and
later took on the name Utagawa in honor of his teacher.
It was not uncommon for an apprentice to take one
syllable from their teachers name and add it as apart of
theirs. Many of
students did the same with his.
success arrived with his creations of actor portraits and
famous Kabuki theatres of the time had the best-known actors
who were seen as icons to the public.
This meant that any prints related to the Kabuki
theatres were in high demand.
There were hundreds of requests for advertising
material from the theatres, and the fans wanted the actor
portraits. This printmaking of the actors is basically the same idea as
movie and celebrity posters.
long before the demand for these prints went beyond Toyokuni’s
ability to produce. This
is when the Utagawa School would shine.
Within a few weeks the school was alive with students
producing countless prints and book illustrations; it was
said that there are records of 29 students who were taught
under Toyokuni. Among
all of Utagawa’s
pupils, the most famous in woodprint design were Kunisada
and Kuniyoshi. They
were also apart of the group of pupils that were with
Toyokuni when he died in 1825. - As a side note, it
was not Toyokuni who founded the school of Utagawa, it was
his teacher Toyoharu; however, it was Toyokuni who made it a
success with the actor prints.
interesting fact about Toyokuni was that it wasn’t
so much that he had a genius in his work, as it was his
commitment to create a new style from the great artists that
had come before him. It
was through this study, that Toyokuni Utagawa achieved his
brilliance in printmaking. His actor prints were not seen as just simple pictures, but
were prints that bore the markings of real life.