Kunichika Toyohara (1835-1900)
Toyohara Kunichika was born in Kyobashi, in the midst of the merchant and artisan area surrounding Edo Castle, under the name of Yasohachi Oshima. His father owned a bath house. Still in his childhood, he changed his name to Yasohachi Arakawa, following his older brother in taking the family name of his mother grandfather, who owned a tea house. Kunichika is a real son of the "floating world" and, according to his bohemian reputation, lived up to his roots. One of his fellows said about him that "Prints, theater and drinking are all his life and for him that is enough."
Kunichika become a pupil of Chikanobu when he was eleven or twelve and, when he was thirteen, entered the sudio of Kunisada. It was from the name of both his masters that he received the mon (or artist name) of Kunichika. His first known works is from 1853.
Kunichika was greatly apreciated in his own time, although he never attained the fame of his master Kunisada or of Yoshitoshi in his late years. He is known mainly for his actor prints (yakusha-e), although he also produced beauty prints and some landscape and historical scene prints. In 1867 he was one of the artists chosen to contribute to the Japanese participation in the Paris World Fair, one of the great moments of the discovery of Ukiyo-e prints in Europe.
Kunichika is generally considered the first artist to explore the full potential of the triptych format, in opposition to the simple juxtaposition of three independent prints. This attribution can not be confirmed, as other artists and in particular Kuniyoshi, had already developed "unified" compositions. This notwithstanding, Kunichika is, without doubt, one of the great masters of this format.
Kunichika was one of the Ukiyo-e masters that better used the new artificial pigments imported from Germany, in particular the strong blue, red and purple tones. This made him an underrated artist, in particular during the twentieth century, by art critics, that considered him to be vulgar and that associated his name with the decadence of "true" Ukiyo-e. However Kunichika is, with Yoshitoshi, one of the last great Ukiyo-e masters and the one, of the two, that best connects with the traditional ways. From his several pupils we must refer Yoshu Chikanobu, almost his contemporary, that represents the transition to the new sensibility that will culminate in the Shin Hanga style.
Following an old Japanese use, Kunichika prepared his own funeral poem, which says "Since I am tired of painting portraits of people of this world, I will paint portraits of Enma [the King of Hell] and the devils".