Artist to Know: Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Liz Catalano
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Upcoming Auction Offers Prints From Late Ukiyo-e Master

Japanese ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi had a tumultuous career. His path to commercial success took him from a promising youth through years of poverty and political censorship. Despite these difficulties, the printmaker became one of the most popular ukiyo-e artists of the Edo period. Today, Kuniyoshi is remembered as a master of fantastical prints and expressive figures.

Several woodblock prints from Utagawa Kuniyoshi will come to auction on January 31st, 2021, with Ukiyo-e Gallery. Discover Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s life and legacy before the sale begins.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, self-portrait from Chinpen shinkeibai, 1839 [public domain image].
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, self-portrait from Chinpen shinkeibai, 1839 [public domain image].

Born in 1797, Utagawa Kuniyoshi was the son of a silk dyer. He grew up during the height of the ukiyo-e genre. This movement dominated Japanese art for centuries and offered “pictures of the floating world” to the rising middle class. After showing early artistic promise, Kuniyoshi joined the large Utagawa school at the age of 14. Utagawa-trained artists mass-produced woodblock prints and sold them to ordinary people. While contemporary Japanese critics were not generous toward Utagawa artists, many still experienced great success in the 19th century. Kuniyoshi trained under Utagawa Toyokuni I and was soon a star student. 

Kuniyoshi had a bright future as an ukiyo-e designer when he finished his studies. Even with his advanced skills, the artist spent several difficult years trying to find his place in the Japanese art world. He abandoned his art for a time to sell tatami mats for money. Kuniyoshi’s fortunes reversed when he released a series of triptychs in 1827. These prints illustrated a popular 14th-century Chinese story about a group of daring rebels. 

After his breakthrough, Kuniyoshi rapidly became a leading ukiyo-e artist. His works were whimsical, macabre, and far from the restrained elegance of his peers. Witches and ghosts made frequent appearances in Kuniyoshi’s mid-career prints.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, c. 1844. Image from Ukiyo-e Gallery.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, c. 1844. Image from Ukiyo-e Gallery.

One of Kuniyoshi’s more famous works is Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, created around 1844. The triptych shows a rebellious 10th-century princess, Takiyasha, summoning a giant skeleton to terrorize a court official. A version of this work, printed from re-carved woodblocks, will be available in the upcoming Ukiyo-e Gallery auction (estimate: USD 1,200 – $1,500). 

This particular work raised questions about Kuniyoshi’s access to anatomical materials and Western images. Kuniyoshi lived under the Tokugawa shogunate and was subject to his government’s Tempō reforms. Under the strict isolationist policies of the time, many working artists had little interaction with Western art. Kuniyoshi seems to be an exception. An 1894 biography of Kuniyoshi revealed that he maintained a large collection of Western newspapers, Dutch and German engravings, and Renaissance reproductions.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Cats Suggested by the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road, undated. Image from Ukiyo-e Gallery.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Cats Suggested by the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road, undated. Image from Ukiyo-e Gallery.

Kuniyoshi explored a variety of themes over his career. While his warrior prints and tattoo designs were in high demand, he also captured landscapes, beautiful women, Kabuki actors, and cats. One triptych inspired by Kuniyoshi’s love for cats will also be available in this January’s Ukiyo-e Gallery event. Cats Suggested by the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road was first published in 1848. The piece plays on the names of stations along a picturesque Japanese road (estimate: $1,200 – $1,500). 

Scholars estimate that Kuniyoshi produced thousands of prints during his lifetime. He continues to be a highly-valued ukiyo-e artist despite this high output. Early and original woodblock prints from Kuniyoshi tend to sell for higher prices than re-carved and later editions. Christie’s sold an early example of The Ghosts of the Taira Attack Yoshitsune in Daimotsu Bay for GBP 81,250 (USD 110,970) in 2018. That edition was a rare early print that has maintained its colors for over 170 years. Many later printings come to auction with brighter colors and lower starting estimates.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Ghosts of the Taira Attack Yoshitsune in Daimotsu Bay, c. 1849-52. Image from Christie’s.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Ghosts of the Taira Attack Yoshitsune in Daimotsu Bay, c. 1849-52. Image from Christie’s.

Around the time Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre was first produced, Kuniyoshi found himself restricted by government censorship. He often criticized shogunate officials through his satirical designs. This occasionally led to investigations and the destruction of his works, continuing into the 1840s and 50s. 

However, Kuniyoshi maintained his artistic practice through the end of his life. He enjoyed prosperity even in his later years and helped his students also achieve success. Kuniyoshi is now known as one of the leading ukiyo-e masters and a grandfather of contemporary manga and anime. 

Three woodblock prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi will be available in Ukiyo-e Gallery’s upcoming sale. Bidding will begin at 1:00 PM EST on January 31st, 2021. Visit LiveAuctioneers for more information and to place a bid. 

Want to know more about artists’ histories at auction? Check out Auction Daily’s profile of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat.