This section introduces a range of Japanese woodblock print artists whose work comes through our gallery.
Eizan Kikugawa is often referred to as one of the great masters of the beauty print genre, but this has not always been the case. In the past, he was often dismissed by collectors who assumed that he was plagiarising the great ukiyo-e master Utamaro who, just like Eizan, is largely known for his beauty prints and has been an inspiration for this artist. Nowadays, Eizan’s artistic talent and independence have been recognised.
Developing his own style came to Eizan later on in his career. He is believed to have started quite young, mostly creating beauty prints in Utamaro’s style in the beginning. Later in life, Eizan discovered his own style, while still showing the influence of Utamaro in the sensitivity, expressive sensuality and erotic charm of his work.
Apparently, Eizan produced his first proper work in his teen years. It went on to be published, which is an unusual accomplishment. It is also believed that he managed to become an accomplished artist by the age of 21. A particular artistic innovation, the scroll format, which is a vertical oban diptych that was popular in the late 1830s, is thought to have been invented by this artist.
The craft of woodblock printing lay in Eizan’s family. He was born as a son of Eiji Kikugawa who was a Kano-style painter. Studying with his father, and with Suzuki Nanrei later on, Eizan was also influenced by the works of Hokkei. The latter was an old friend of Eizan and the student of another master of ukiyo-e, Hokusai.
Eizan himself had a few students, none of whom achieved the same heights of fame as their teacher, with the exception of Eisen. This is where the relationship of teacher and student became a little complicated: Eisen himself had a number of students collectively called Kikugawa school, but Eizan is regarded to be the school’s founder. The artist remained unmarried and childless and is believed to have been looked after by one of his students during his later years.
0 - 1800
active 1790 – 1799
Eisho Chokosai was a pupil of Eishi Hosoda. Emphasis in his oeuvre are bijin prints and bust portraits.
1756 - 1829
Chobunsai Eishi, also known as Hosoda Eishi, had an unusual background for a woodblock print artist. Born into a wealthy and noble samurai lineage, he did not fit the usual profile of an ukiyo-e artist, as they tended to come from a less wealthy and prestigious background. Chobunsai’s family were the lords of Tanba and one of his relatives was even close to the Shogun in his profession as a government official responsible for financial matters. Despite his standing and sizable government stipend, Chobunsai abandoned his official post at the age of 30 to devote his life to art.
Following the habits of the strictly hierarchical samurai society, Chobunsai’s career started as a painter in the traditional Kano school, as one of the official painters to the Shogunate who focused on depicting elegant birds and flowers in the Chinese style. Despite his status and the ideals connected to it that dictated the art of the plebeian townsmen to be beneath himself as a samurai, Chobunsai found himself drawn to ukiyo-e, the pictures of the floating world, and began to produce woodblock prints.
The usual subjects for this genre are prostitutes and kabuki actors, but Chobunsai chose a slightly different route. His early works include a set of 9 triptychs of a visually modern Tale of Genji, depicting girls in the most up-to-date fashions placed in settings related to this romantic 11th-century tale. The stylisation in these prints is extremely elegant and the restricted colours of beni-girai are utilised to great effect.
His most distinctive works depict courtesans against a yellow background, striving for elegance and refinement. In these aspects, Chobunsai’s willowy women vie with those of masters like Utamaro, Torii Kiyonaga and Kubo Shunman. Eventually, their bodies were elongated until the head comprised only one tenth of the height of the body.
Utamaro’s work had a huge client base of ordinary townsmen and wealthy merchants for support and he towered above other artists in his field of bijin-ga in the eyes of many. Eishi received maybe greater honour and recognition in his own lifetime than even that. His images might not have had as much emotional depth as Utamaro’s, but the noble elegance and refinement inherent to them represented the ideals of women in a samurai society. One of Chobunsai’s prints was even owned by the empress Gosakuramada.
In the last years of his life, Chobunsai seems to have ceased producing woodblock prints in favour of taking up painting again. Some of his notable works can be seen in book illustrations, such as ‘The Thiry-six Immortal Women Poets’.
1864 - 1905
Throughout merely 41 (1764-1905) years of life, Eisen Tomioka managed to develop an astounding career. He studied Japanese painting under Kobayashi Eitaku at the age of 18 and worked as a freelance artist.
Tomioka spent a successful stretch of his life creating independent works of art after his teacher’s death in 1890. Winning a silver medal at the first joint Japan Art Institute/Japan Painting Association exhibition, he became a judge for future exhibitions and flourished as an artist until his death.