Kunichika Toyohara, Kabuki Actors at a Blessing Waterfall, Tattoo Design

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Artist: Kunichika Toyohara (1835 – 1900)
Title: Arigataki Megumi no Hanagata (Kabuki Stars at a Blessing Waterfall)
Publisher: Fukuyama Seishichi
Date: 1889
Size: approx 26.5 x 39 cm for each panel

Original Japanese woodblock print. Set of 5 panels. 

One of the last great masters of ukiyo-e, Kunichika was inspired by the plays, actors and customs of kabuki theatre. His colourful prints are records of a long lost, decadent underworld of Edo. Since the beginning of the Meiji period, he made a large number of triptychs depicting half length portraits of a single actor on a big format and in luxurious style, applying original composition in this new design of dynamic prints. He got acclaimed for this work that improved the quality of half-length portraits and because those prints became known by their innovative composition, he succeeded in obtaining the full supremacy in the field of yakusha-e (actor prints).

His portrayal of human faces have some traces of his previous studies in hagoita style painting and can appear to be cold and hard, depending on the perspective, but it became a feature characteristic of his style.

In this series of prints, kabuki actors display their tattoos while bathing next to a waterfall. Their patterns are original Japanese irezumi motifs. One of the actors has a karajishi tattoo, which is a guardian lion usually found at shrine and temple entrances, said to drive away evil spirits. Another actor holds a robe with the image of a tiger in a bamboo forest, symbolising shelter given to the powerful, a trope common to both tattoos and Buddhism and a possible mirror to the tattoo he is hiding underneath. Side by side, the image depicts a relaxed moment during a pilgrimage, stopping near a waterfall to cool down on a hot summer day.

Kunichika Toyohara (1835 - 1900)


One of the last great masters of ukiyo-e, Kunichika was inspired by the plays, actors and customs of kabuki theatre. His colourful prints are records of a long lost, decadent underworld of Edo. As a young man, he studied with the ukiyo-e artist Chikanobu, from whom he received his artist name. He then apprenticed under Kunisada and began to produce actor prints in the Utagawa style, though he never used the Utagawa name. Unlike most artists of the period, he made use of strong reds and dark purples, often as background colours, rather than the softer colours that had previously been used. These new colours were made of aniline dyes imported in the Meiji period from Germany. When portraying people he only occasionally showed figures wearing Western dress, despite its growing popularity in Japan. He is also one of the best known artists to have designed a great number of prints featuring tattoos, a genre made popular earlier in Edo period by Kuniyoshi Utagawa.

More Information
Print FormatPentaptych
ArtistKunichika Toyohara (1835 - 1900)
SubjectKabuki Theatre, Tattoo Design
Sizeapprox 26.5 x 39 cm for each panel
Condition ReportSlightly trimmed. Minor spots and very light creases.