Toyokuni I Utagawa was one of the greatest masters of woodblock printing of the 18th century and is celebrated for his images of beautiful women (bijinga) and actors (yakusha-e). During his time as the head of the Utagawa school of printmaking, he influenced numerous artists of the next generation, impacting the direction in which woodblock print designs would evolve in the 19th century.
Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), Toyokuni was apprenticed to the first head of the Utagawa art school, Utagawa Toyoharu (c. 1735 – 1814). In recognition of his artistic ability, Toyokuni later took the name Utagawa Toyokuni, following the common practice of using one syllable of his master's name.
Toyokuni’s early education as a printmaker is linked to Toyoharu, but his early beauty prints are influenced by Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) and Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820). Even though beauty prints made up the body of work of his early career, Toyokuni really came into fame once he moved his focus to depicting stage actors. Posters advertising kabuki plays and portraits of favourite actors were in high demand with adoring fans to the point that the artist grew unable to keep up with the growing amount of orders. This led to an increased number of students at the Utagawa school and caused people to believe that Toyokuni was the founder of the school when it was actually Toyoharu. His draughtsmanship and use of colours were greatly admired and his early works are the best examples of his style, uninfluenced by the helping hand of his students.
Nonetheless, Toyokuni should be credited with shaping the Utagawa school into a well-run artistic enterprise. We know of 29 of Toyokuni’s students, the most famous ones being Kunisada Utagawa (1786-1864) and Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1798-1861).