Toyokuni III Utagawa, Aoi, The Fifty-four Chapters of the Tale of Genji

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Artist: Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865)
Title: Aoi
Series title: The Fifty-four Chapters of the Tale of Genji
Publisher: Uoya Eikichi
Date: 1858
Size: (L) 25.2 x 37.2, (R) 25.2 x 37.1 cm

Original Japanese woodblock print.

‘The Tale of Genji’ (Genji Monogatari) is a full-length Japanese novel written by Murasaki Shikibu, a talented aristocratic female poet from the Fujiwara clan in the middle of the Heian era (794 to 1185). Consisting of 54 chapters in trilogy, it is a biographical tale of the main character Prince Genji and his descendants after his death, which continues for 70 years, with 500 castings and more or less 800 poems. It recounted Prince Genji’s involvement with ladies of the court, but it was more than just a romantic love story of high society. It was a psychological insight into the principles of human life, being read by enlightened and educated nobles in the Imperial Court. ‘The Tale of Genji’ is now considered to be a Japanese classic masterpiece and one of the most influential work of literature in history. It has also been translated in numerous foreign languages since.

In the Edo period (1603-1868), ‘The Tale of Genji’ was imagined and reimagined countless times. In both archaic and contemporary forms, the story had been relocated from the old capital of Kyoto to the new audience Edo. A key proponent to the reinvigoration of this classic tale was the extremely popular serialisation of Ryutei Tanehiko's (1783-1842) illustrated book ‘False Murasaki and a Rural Genji’, a loose adaptation that interwove contemporary culture to the original plot. The text of Tanehiko’s Genji was illustrated by renowned artist Kunisada and the series achieved enormous commercial success, giving birth to a whole new genre in the world of woodblock prints: genji-e (pictures of Genji).

Toyokuni III Utagawa (Kunisada I)


Kunisada I Utagawa was a prolific woodblock print artist mostly known for his pictures of beautiful women (bijinga) and kabuki actors prints (yakusha-e). Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), he became a pupil of Toyokuni I Utagawa (1769-1825) at the age of 15 and would later adopt his name in the traditional Japanese manner, becoming Toyokuni III and continuing the development of the Utagawa art school.

Kunisada’s pictures reflect the culture of Japan in the years leading up to the country’s opening to the West. His first book illustrations were published in 1807 and his first actor portrait the following year. Alongside theatrical scenes and courtesans, yakusha-e was his preferred genre amidst all his popular and extensive output. As he painted a large number of these, continuing the stout realism of his teacher, he acquired the nickname ‘Yakusha-e no Kunisada’ – Kunisada, the actor painter. In his numerous bijinga he clung to the ideal of beauty prevalent at the time. Most of the women portrayed were courtesans from Yoshiwara, the regulated red-light district of the city.

In 1820s Kunisada joined author Ryutei Tanehiko (1783-1842) to work on illustrating a series of books based on the classical novel ‘The Tale of Genji’, the reinterpreted story having been relocated from the old capital of Kyoto to the new audience in Edo. The work started a new ukiyo-e genre, genji-e, and proved an overnight success, becoming the first Japanese publication to sell over 10,000 copies, a record which stood for many years.

Kunisada gave his audience an escape from the restrictions of their ordinary lives and his designs, with their optimism and energy, still have the capacity today to attract and entertain. Notable students of Kunisada included Kunichika Toyohara, Sadahide Utagawa and Kunisada II Utagawa.

More Information
Print FormatDiptych
Artist NameToyokuni III Utagawa (Kunisada I)
TitleAoi
SubjectMale & Female, Kimono Design
Dimensions(L) 25.2 x 37.2, (R) 25.2 x 37.1 cm
Condition ReportBinding holes, wormholes, minor paper residue on the back.