Kunichika Toyohara was one the most important woodblock print artists of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Best known for his dramatic actor portraits (yakusha-e.), Kunichika ushered ukiyo-e into a new era of color printmaking. At his hand, the floating world came to life in rich purples and deep reds. Even as new artistic mediums became popular in Japan, Kunichika championed the genres and aesthetics of ukiyo-e in vivid color.
Born as Yasohachi Oshima in 1835, Kunichika's father was a public bathhouse proprietor in Kyobashi district, home to many artists and merchants. He changed assumed his mother's family name, Arakawa, during his youth. Kunichika began his artistic training around the age of 12 under Chikanobu Ichiosai Toyohara. Roughly two years later, Kunichika apprenticed under Kunisada Utagawa (1786-1865) and began to produce actor prints in the 1850s. Though he worked in the style of the Utagawa school, he never used the Utagawa name. Kunichika took his artist name from names of his two teachers. After more than a decade in Kunisada's studio, Kunichika's popularity rose as he stepped out as an independent artist in the 1860s and 1870s.
Though Kunichika produced some bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women), historical prints, and journalistic illustrations, his passion lay with the kabuki theater. From sprawling triptychs to okubi-e (large-head portraits) rich in emotion, Kunichika established himself as the leading artist of yakusha-e (actor prints). He immersed himself in the kabuki world, regularly spending time backstage, sketching the actors, socializing with the theatrical figures, and watching the plays. This wealth of personal experience in the theater lent an intimacy to his bold designs. Kunichika's notable students include Chikanobu Yoshu (1838-1912) and Chikashige Morikawa (fl. 1869-1882).