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Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)

Complete Album: Mirror of the True Loyalty of Each of the Faithful Retainers

Series: Mirror of the True Loyalty of Each of the Faithful Retainers
Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1857
Size (H x W): 14.25 x 9.25 (inches)
Publisher: Horikoshi
Seals: Aratame and date seal
Signature: Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga, Yoshitori-jo ga
Condition: Complete series bound in album. Very good color and impression, light soiling and wear, with greater wear on first and last print, some very light wormage on several prints, embellished with burnishing and embossing.

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This album contains a complete set of Kuniyoshi's series Mirror of the True Loyalty of Each of the Faithful Retainers (c.1857). Each print presents a character from the legendary tale of loyalty and revenge paired with a tsuba-shaped cartouche and allusive poem. The inset images that contain these poems were designed by one of Kuniyoshi's daughters, Yoshitori-jo. Her signatures throughout the album vary, but she often used Yoshitori-jo, Kuniyoshi musume, musume Tori, and Tori-jo. Many of the prints in this series include a diamond shape containing a hiragana syllable. These syllables relate to iroha ordering, a system similar to an alphabetical ordering system that was widely used in Kuniyoshi's time.

About the artist

The son of silk dyer, Kuniyoshi Utagawa was born into the Igusa family in Edo. Little is known about his very early years, though he is said to have shown remarkable talent from a young age. Kuniyoshi began his ukiyo-e career as a pupil of Shunei. At age 14 he was accepted to study the art of woodblock printing under Toyokuni I and, in time, would become one of his most successful students. In 1814, he left Toyokuni’s studio to pursue a career as an independent ukiyo-e artist. Initially, he had little success, selling tatami mats in order to support himself. However, his fortunes changed in 1827 with his dramatic series 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. From that point forward, the public hungered for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes. Kuniyoshi Utagawa worked across all genres, producing some brilliant landscapes and charming bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). He died in the spring of 1861 from complications of a stroke.

In direct contrast to the peaceful views of a scenic Japan provided by Hiroshige and Hokusai, the following decades saw a rise of the fierce, fearsome and fantastical in ukiyo-e. Kuniyoshi welcomed this changing public taste. He had a ravenous imagination and the full scope of his work reveals an aesthetic sensibility capable of capturing almost any experience. No doubt, however, his particular genius felt most at home in the world of martial glory, where epic battles decided the fate of empires and fierce warriors clashed to the death. Kuniyoshi's Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.