Kuniyoshi Utagawa, The Tale of Genji, Archery Practice


Original Japanese woodblock print.

Artists: Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1798-1861)
Title: Archery Practice from the Tales of Genji
Publisher: Enshuya Matabei
Date: 1847-1852
Condition: Trimmed. Corner torn. Vertical folds due to the previous binding. Faint ink transfer on centre pane. Some minor wormholes.
Dimensions: (L) 25.3 x 35 (C) 25.3 x 34.9 (R) 25.2 x 34.9 cm

Enjoying the warmer clime of Japan's summer months, noblemen and women gather outside to watch and partake in an archery competition. A female attendant close to the target scores the shot of a young man. The left of the scene shows an elaborately dressed prince surrounded by attendants, a rich brocade of patterned robes and cloth. The road towards the target is cleverly cordoned off with crested barriers leading the eye to the target through the open road. Archery meetings near the Rokujo mansion are mentioned several times in Lady Murasaki Shikubu's (c. 973-1031) novel The Tale of Genji. Written in the eleventh century, the pastimes and customs of the imperial elite are described in detail, giving readers an insight to the distinct court culture of the Heian period (794-1185). These meetings allowed factions within the court to engage in healthy competition and often gave way to banqueting and revelry.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1797 - 1861)

Kuniyoshi Utagawa can without a doubt be considered the master of the warrior print genre. Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo) as the son of a silk-dyer, he had first-hand experience that later influenced the rich use of colour and textile patterns in his prints. His early talent and his drawings impressed the ukiyo-e print master Toyokuni I Utagawa and he was officially admitted to his studio in 1811, becoming one of his chief pupils. He remained an apprentice until 1814, at which time he was given the name ‘Kuniyoshi’ and set out as an independent artist.

His break-through came in 1827 with the series of ‘The 108 Heroes of The Tale of Suikoden’, which is based on a Chinese novel of the same name from the 14th century. It contains tales of about 108 rebels and heroic bandits that were very popular in Japan during Kuniyoshi’s lifetime, as their strong feelings of justice resonated with the Edo public with limited freedom and under strict government laws. A series of reforms in the 1840s banned the illustration of courtesans and kabuki actors in ukiyo-e. The government-created limitations became a kind of artistic challenge which actually encouraged Kuniyoshi's creativity by forcing him to find ways to veil criticism of the government allegorically. He also played a major role in tattoo designs in woodblock prints, with many of his works still being a source of inspiration for contemporary tattoo artists. 

The warriors and heroes Kuniyoshi continuously designed were extremely popular and gave the artist the nickname of ‘Kuniyoshi of Warrior Prints’. Dynamic bodies and stern expressions were characteristic to his warriors, lending them a powerful and strong look. The commercial success of his warriors gave Kuniyoshi the freedom to explore other subjects of ukiyo-e, such as animals, birds, flowers, beautiful women, monsters and ghosts. His compositions are replete with humour and often involve witty wordplay. His most spectacular triptychs of warriors resonate even in contemporary culture, with influence in modern graphic media such as manga. His most famous designs include ‘The Ghosts of Taira Attack Yoshitsune at Daimotsu Bay’ and ‘Princess Takiyasha Summons a Skeleton Spectre to Frighten Mitsukuni’.

Kuniyoshi was an excellent teacher and had numerous pupils who continued his branch of the Utagawa school. Among the most notable were Yoshitoshi, Yoshitora, Yoshiiku, Yoshikazu, Yoshitsuya, and Yoshifuji. As they became established as independent artists, many went on to develop highly innovative styles of their own.

More Information
Print FormatTriptych
ArtistKuniyoshi Utagawa (1797 - 1861)
SubjectBeauty & Female, Samurai & Male, Male & Female
Size(L) 25.3 x 35 cm (C) 25.3 x 34.9 cm (R) 25.2 x 34.9 cm
publisherEnshuya Matabei:1768-1881