Face turned over his right shoulder, the actor Osagawa Tsuneyo II furrows his thick brows. Dressed in the role of Osan–an identification still hotly debated by scholars–the actor delicately grasps the green fabric of his outer kimono as it slides off his shoulder, revealing three encircled flowers. This crest identifies this famous onnagata, or male actor specializing in female roles. The bright peach of Osagawa’s kimono is striking–typically, impressions of this shade fade to the palest hint of peach. Set against a dark grey mica, the actor’s under kimono echoes its shimmer in pearl mica. Sharaku’s oeuvre numbers approximately 140 works, mostly kabuki actors, marked by satire, unfaltering wit, and an interest in the individual. Sharaku and Utamaro are together credited with the rise of psychological portraiture in ukiyo-e: Sharaku in the realm of the theatrical, Utamaro in genre of beautiful women.
Other impressions of this print can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, British Museum, Harvard Art Museum, Tokyo National Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Ritsumeikan University.
About the artist
Sharaku was a pivotal ukiyo-e artist of the 18th century. Very little is known about Sharaku’s life, save that he lived in Edo. During his ten-month career, his prints were of such high caliber that Modern critics compare his genius to that of Rembrandt. He produced around 140 known designs between May 1794 and February 1795, mostly kabuki actors, marked by an air of satire and persistent wit, as well as some sumo prints. Sharaku’s work was radical for its time. His actor portraits allow the viewer an exceptionally intimate understanding of the subject’s character. Yet, during his lifetime, Sharaku’s style proved controversial. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that his prints were rediscovered and earned him the exceptional reputation he holds today.
Throughout this artistic flowering of the ukiyo-e tradition, artists explored greater realism and began to consider the inner life of the subject, giving way to psychological portraiture. This “Golden Age” of ukiyo-e is marked by a confidence and maturity, composition and refinement, never before mastered.
What art offers is space - a certain breathing room for the spirit. - John Updike