Kunisada has been called the most “prolific and successful of all Japanese print designers.” He trained in the studio of Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) and created mostly actor portraits throughout his career. These prints focused on specific well-known Kabuki actors of the time and the roles they played. Many of Kunisada’s prints also paired actors with specific landscapes. Kunisada does this in his series From the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Highway. A print from this series is housed in the Miami University Art Museum collection.
An interesting aspect of Kunisada is that his later work was looked upon less favorably by collectors than his early work. In fact, the early generations of Western collectors of Japanese Kabuki actor woodblock prints were not interested in the work of Kunisada, as many of them viewed his later work as representative of a decline in the quality of Japanese woodblock prints and the end of the golden age of printmakers.
Despite the initial unfavorable reception from Western audiences, modern art historians recognize the importance of Kunisada’s work within the woodblock print medium in eighteenth-century Japan. They point to Kunisada’s unique realism approach to portraying actors. Audiences of ukiyo-e prints had changing preferences during Kunisada’s time period, and more individuals sought out prints that contained more detail and information about actor characters. As a result, Kunisada made okubi-e, or ‘big-head pictures’ that showed close-up profiles of the characters played by Kabuki actors. Kunisada was also known for adding greater movement and facial expression in his works, as well as more color than had been seen in the genre previously.
Includes information from:
Bell, David. “Faces of Loyalty: Utagawa Kunisada’s Seichū Gishi-Den: Conformity and Innovation in the Ukiyo-e Portrait.” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 17, no. 2 (December 1, 2015): 75–94. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip&db=bas&AN=BAS881081&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Tinios, Ellis. “Kunisada and the Last Flowering of ‘Ukiyo-E’ Prints.” Print Quarterly 8, no. 4 (December 1991): 342–62. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip&db=hia&AN=46112686&site=eds-live&scope=site.