As we know, the aspiring print designer Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) was initially really having a hard time making a living, at times even obliged to be selling tatami mattings or carve the heads of puppets, until, from 1827 he could enjoy some success when his series of Portraits of All of the One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, Tsūzoku Suikoden gōketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori, published by Kagaya Kichiemon, finally brought him success. At the time, he still could hardly afford some good paper or use it as he would have liked. This we can clearly see in his preparatory sketch for the portrait of Rōshi Ensei in this series (National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, RV-3513-x; see my Drawings by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The Hague 1988, 27), where he used the verso of the sheet for a design of a seated Chinese man. Also in the sketch for Waikyakko Ōei in the same collection (RV-3513-139; Forrer, 42), he later used some empty space for some scribblings of heads and arms, and even what seems to be a first idea for his print of Kikenji Tokyō of the Suikoden series.
Especially this very first idea that came to Kuniyoshi’s mind when he thought about his print of Kikenji Tokyō, as well as quite some other designs that are known in various versions, help us to get closer to Kuniyoshi’s artistry, almost allowing us to look over his shoulders as he was working. As an art historian, I find this fascinating. However, many years ago, when I suggested to some Japanese publisher to make a book on sketches and the corresponding final prints and bookplates, he looked really puzzled, almost shocked by the idea that I didn’t realize that it was only the final product that mattered, as he assured me.
What I consider a very fine example of Kuniyoshi at work is the preliminary sketch of the great archer Minamoto no Tametomo (1139-1170?) in full armour, shooting an arrow at Mochimitsu’s ship that is seen in the distance on the water, thus drowning almost all of the three hundred men with it (RV-3513-95; Forrer 45).* Kuniyoshi intended this design for the series of The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidō Road, Kisokaidō rokujūkyūtsugi no uchi, published by Kagaya Yasubei in the years 1852-53. There is already some correction on Tametomo’s face in pasted on pentimenti and even the cartouches for the series and print titles are indicated. But then, as Kuniyoshi showed the preliminary sketch to Kagaya Yasubei, his publisher – and we didn’t know that this was sometimes (?) or maybe always (?) done – he apparently demanded to adapt the design and make it a portrait of the famous 9th century archer Yuriwaka Daijin instead, as we can infer from the scribbling at the bottom, reading ‘Yasubei [says] this [must be] Yuriwaka,’ Yasubei kore Yuriwaka. Amazing, don’t you think. Not only that Kuniyoshi would show, or rather submit his very preliminary sketch to the publisher, but also that he obviously had a say, such as remarking ‘No, forget about Tametomo, I rather want a portrait of Yuriwaka.’
* Please excuse the bad quality of this illustration, this is even better that what I can download from the museum’s website, but as soon as I can access the museum again, I will try to get better pics
And so, Kuniyoshi started working on an adaptation of the design to make it a portrait of Yuriwaka. This we can see in a sketch also preserved in the National Museum of Ethnology (RV-3513-150; Forrer 35). Here he is portrayed without any armour, his clothing just blowing in the wind, though a little less freely than in the print, anyway just a preliminary sketch of the figure of Yuriwaka, although he wouldn’t in the end be stretching the string of his bow as both the string and the arrow would interfere with his face, rather at the moment when he had shot the arrow, as in the original Tametomo design (again as the publisher preferred it?). That is the print published by Kagaya Yasubei in V/1852.
Even then, still not oblivious of his days as a poor aspiring designer of prints, Kuniyoshi didn’t spill any paper and used some empty space in the sheet of this second sketch for three designs of triptych compositions. One of these, at the bottom, between Yuriwaka’s feet, has a first idea for one of his major triptych compositions of A View of the Sea Bottom at Daimotsu Bay, Daimotsu no ura kaitei no zu, with Taira no Tomomori (1151-1185) and some other Taira heroes at the bottom of the sea, rather drowning himself after his defeat in the battle at Dannoura in 1185 than being killed by the Minamoto, attached to a huge anchor, some others already transformed into crabs hurrying to attack Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s ship, the print published by Fujiokaya Keijirō, c.1852 (Robinson T 266; Forrer, Kuniyoshi. Prestel 2020, 95).
The other project for a triptych composition, on the right edge, is more difficult to identify. Turning the portrait of Yuriwaka left, we see a group of persons to the right, a man swaying a sword or spear in the centre, and some diagonal lines on the left sheet. Eventually, we can associate this with the print of Benkei Master and Servant in Danger at the Ataka Barrier in the Province of Kaga [when Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189), the Master, and Benkei, the Servant, tried to escape from the troops of Hōjō no Tokimasa in the guise of travelling monks], Kaga no kuni Ataka no seki ni Benkei shūjū no kinan wo suku no zu, published by Tsujiokaya Bunsuke years later, in III/1856. The first sketch recording Kuniyoshi’s first idea of a composition was obviously quite severely adapted in the details, but the general composition remained intact. Anyway, this demonstrates that Kuniyoshi held on to his original ideas of c.1852 and didn’t think it a problem to get back to these some four years later.
As for the third sketch of a triptych composition, in the left margin, of which only a small part can be seen, it is too difficult to associate this with any known print. Anyway, so far this really may contribute to a much better understanding of Kuniyoshi’s practice as an artist.