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Kunichika Toyohara was born Yasohachi Arakawa, the son of a public bathhouse proprietor in the artisan section of Edo. As a young man, he studied with the ukiyo-e artist Chikanobu, from whom he received his artist name. He then apprenticed under Kunisada and began to produce actor prints in the Utagawa style, though he never used the Utagawa name. Kunichika married and had one daughter, though his marriage ended due to his questionable personal conduct.
Known for his actor okubi-e (big-head portraits), Kunichika's prints captured a traditional genre with the bold new colors of aniline dyes. He made great use of the deep, scarlet red to dramatic effect. In addition, he produced some historical prints and journalistic illustrations. Passionate about kabuki theater, Kunichika regularly spent time backstage, sketching the actors and watching the plays. This wealth of personal experience in the theater lends an intimacy to his impeccable yakusha-e (actor prints). Before the Meiji Restoration of 1867, Kunichika was chosen by the Japanese government to present his work at the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris.