Kuniyoshi’s very first ideas for his new compositions

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.

Minamoto no Tametomo shooting an arrow at the ship with Mochimitsu and his warriors. Courtesy National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden RV-3513-95

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.

Yuriwaka Daijin shooting an arrow. Courtesy National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden RV-3513-150
The Station of Fukaya from the series The 69 Stations of the Kisokaidō: The heroe Yuriwaka Daijin shooting an arrow

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).

A View of the Sea Bottom at Daimotsu Bay, with Taira no Tomomori and some other Taira heroes attached to a large anchor

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.

Benkei Master and Servant in Danger at the Ataka Barrier in the Province of Kaga

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.

Kuniyoshi Helping Us Date Hokusai’s 100 Views of Fuji

In the early 1840s, Kuniyoshi took up the theme of landscape prints again, after some more than five years silence on this front. Alas, for reasons unknown, the project was stopped after only five designs had come out. Was it the poor reaction of the print buying public, or was it beyond the capacity of the publisher Murataya Jirōbei, or was it the poets involved in some of the prints? Anyway, we are left with only five of thirty-six scheduled/promised designs in the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji Seen from the Eastern Capital (Tōto Fujimi sanjūrokkei).

Kuniyoshi: Mount Fuji with a Clear Sky from the Open Sea at Tsukudajima Island

For Kuniyoshi, the series seems to have been a tribute to Hokusai whom he greatly admired. Not only does the ‘Thirty-six’ in the series title evoke Hokusai’s famous Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei) of the early 1830s, also the writing of the name of the mountain with characters literally reading ‘Not two,’  meaning  ’Second to none,’ calls into mind the characters used in the titles of the plates in Hokusai’s Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei) albums.

As for the dating of the Kuniyoshi series, Robinson 1961 has c.1843; Nagoya 1996 has c.1844; Ota 2011 has c.1844; Iwakiri 2013 has c.1843; Menegazzo 2017 has c.1843. I myself had dated the series to ‘early 1840s,’ actually rather thinking of a date around 1842/43. And that was before I realised that the plate of the fisherman pulling up his large net was to be found in volume three of the Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei) album, and not in volumes one or two. The fisherman in Hokusai’s plate titled Mount Fuji Behind the Net (Amiura no Fuji) is almost literally copied by Kuniyoshi in his plate Mount Fuji with a Clear Sky from the Open Sea at Tsukudajima Island (Tsukuda oki kaisei no Fuji) – actually writing characters reading ‘seiten’ and indicating that they should be read ‘kaisei’, as in the Fuji in South Wind and Clear Sky (Gaifū kaisei) plate in Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views.

Hokusai: Mount Fuji Behind the Net, from Fugaku hyakkei vol. 3

The date of publication for the two first volumes of the Hundred Views of Mount Fuji is no problem, these are clearly indicated at the end as 1834 and 1835. But the third volume was issued without any such a date, moreover by a different publisher than the two earlier volumes. It is now commonly accepted that the designs were finished by Hokusai and also the blocks were cut by Egawa Sentarō, or at least under his supervision, as early as 1835 for publication in 1836. This we may conclude from a letter of Hokusai to the publishers Kobayashi Shinbei and two others, asking them to contract Egawa for some future project, as his work on the ’three volumes of the Hundred Views surpassed that of many others’ (see Iijima Kyoshin, Katsushika Hokusaiden, Vol. 1, pp. 54f).

But then the long-established firm of the publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi went bankrupt and Nishimuraya was obliged to sell the blocks of all three volumes, which were then acquired by Eirakuya Tōshirō of Nagoya. Eirakuya then waited until the worst of the Tenpō crisis was over – which was probably also the reason why Nishimuraya went bankrupt – and then he brought out his edition of the three volumes of the Hundred Views.

As there is a reference to Hokusai as ‘the old man of over ninety’ in the preface to volume three, Suzuki 1986 (p. 205) believed that this volume was published around 1849, the year Hokusai died, aged 90. Nagata 1985 (p. 161) records volume three as undated, but positions it in between publications of 1840/II and 1841/Autumn (much earlier, in an article in Ukiyoe Art, no. 47 [1975] Nagata still held the date of publication to be ‘c.1849’). Forrer 1985 (p. 173) was the first to suggest a date around 1842, on the basis of the advertisements that Eirakuya included in his first edition of Hokusai’s Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. But I must say that I never bothered to check who was following me except from Nagata sensei. Anyway, the date of c.1842 would be perfectly in agreement with the various datings of Kuniyoshi’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji seen from the Eastern Capital where he acknowledges to have seen all three of the Hokusai Hundred Views albums. 

Kansei 9 Wasn’t 1797 All of the Time – Not for Kuniyoshi at Least

We are now sufficiently conditioned to automatically add one year whenever we find in older literature that Kunisada died in 1864. Indeed, he died on the 15th day of the Twelfth month of Genji 1 (1864), which corresponds with January 12th 1865 in our Gregorian calendar. Consequently, his dates are 1786-1865. We probably also know by now that Katsukawa Shunshō died in 1793, on January 19th, the date corresponding with the 8th day of the Twelfth month of Kansei 4 (1792) in the Japanese lunar calendar.

When I was recently working on my forthcoming monograph on Kuniyoshi, and worked out what would be the equivalent of the 15th day of the 11th Month of Kansei 9 (1797), the date of his birth, the outcome was January 1st, 1798. As I then checked how many times I myself had simply not gone to the trouble to check this in past publications, I was shocked, especially as I had already in 1988 worked out the correct date, but apparently forgot since.

However, in counting Kuniyoshi’s age, we will have to stick to the circumstance that he was born in Kansei 9 (1797) and then considered to be one year old, turning 2 just a month and a half later at the New Year of Kansei 10 (1798). Consequently, the drawing of Shōki that he would make ‘at the age of twelve’ was made in 1808, whereas we would only consider him twelve in the year 1809.

Kuniyoshi: Shoki, c.1847, not the picture he drew age 12

Then I decided to make a note in the margin of my copy of Roberts’ Dictionary of Japanese Artists so I will never make this mistake again, especially when I am again too lazy to check this properly, and I can advise everybody to do the same. And now that you start doing this, you may also want to add the correct dates for:

Kita Busei 喜多武清 (1776-1857) as he died on 1856-XII-20, or our January 15th, 1857; Akatsuki Kanenari 暁鐘成 (1793-1861) as he died on 1860-XII-19, or our January 29th, 1861; Ichikawa Kansai 市川甘齋 (died 1836), that is 1835-XII, our 1836-I or II; Torii Kiyomine 鳥居清峯, later Kiyomitsu II 二代鳥居清満 (1788-1869) as he died 1868-XI-21, or our January 3rd, 1869; Torii Kiyomitsu III 三代鳥居清満 (1833-1892) as he was born 1832-XII-14, or our February 3rd, 1833; Utagawa Kunisada 歌川國貞, see above; Utagawa Kuniteru II 二代歌川國輝, later Kunitsuna II 二代歌川國綱 (1830-1875) as he died 1874-XII-15, or January 16th, 1875; Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川國芳, see above; Izumi Morikazu 泉守一 (1766-1816) as he died 1815-XII-5, or January 3rd, 1816; Tsukioka Settei 月岡雪鼎 (1710-1787), as he died 1786-XII-4, or January 22nd, 1787; Yanagawa Shigenobu 柳川重信 (1787-!833) as he died 1832-XI intercalary month-28, or our January 18th, 1833;  Katsukawa Shunshō 勝川春章 (1726-1793) as he died 1792-XII-8, or January 19th, 1793; Kō Sūgetsu 高崇月 (1755-1831) as he died 1830-XI-20, or January 3rd, 1831; Kō Sūkei 高崇卿 (1760s-1844) as he died 1843-XII-21, or February 9th, 1844, at the age of 80+ — until here for the moment.

This discrepancy between the lunar calendar of Japan and our Gregorian calendar also explains why there are so many memorial prints, shinie, for the two kabuki actors Bandō Mitsugorō III 三世坂東三津五郎 (1775-1831) and Segawa Kikunojō V 五世瀬川菊之丞 (1802-1832) together. In the case of Mitsugorō we are talking of 1831-XII-27, actually January 29th, 1832, and Kikunojō died 1832-I-7, or February 8th, 1832, indeed, only some ten days later.

But then, we must realise that there are so many artists where we have no information on which day they died. We can only guess that some eight percent of all of them died somewhere in the eleventh or twelfth months, which would make it to the next year in our calendar. And that is just one reason why it is much more interesting to reconstruct exact dates for their periods of activity.