Published in 1770 by Kariganeya Ihei, Picture Book of Stage Fans (Ehon Butai Ogi) presents the brightest kabuki stars of the day. Spanning three volumes, each page features a half-length portrait of an actor framed within the outline of a fan. As a collaborative project from the brushes of Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792) and Ippitsusai Buncho (fl.1765-1792), this illustrated book marks an early exploration of nigao-e, or “likeness pictures.” In each portrait, the artist identifies the actor with his stage name and family crest, yet also through distinctive aspects of his physical appearance and expression. This interest in the recognizable individual drove the success of the Katsukawa School in the second half of 18th century and laid the groundwork for the increasing realism of ukiyo-e at the turn of the century.
About the artist
Shunsho Katsukawa was one of the great masters of ukiyo-e. As founder of the Katsukawa School, he was a pivotal print artist, accomplished painter, and influential teacher. Born in 1726, little is known about Shunsho’s personal life. He came to Edo to study haiku, poetry, and painting under Shunsui Miyagawa. It is thought that Shunsho began to design actor prints (yakusha-e) around 1768. In these prints, he turned away from the idealized figures of the Torii School in favor of recognizable subjects. From subtle facial features to characteristic expressions, Shunsho brought theatrical stars to life through realistic portraiture. As he focused on the individual actor rather than the role portrayed, Shunsho marked a distinct shift in the actor print genre. From his hosoban actor portraits to his illustrated books, Shunsho introduced individualism to yakusha-e. This legacy flourished under talented students such as Shuncho, Shunko, Shunei, and Shunro (aka Hokusai).
Shunsho’s success reached beyond yakusha-e. He explored other ukiyo-e genres, producing many shunga albums, illustrated books, warrior prints, and images of sumo wrestlers throughout his career. He was also highly successful in the field of bijin-ga, or “pictures of beautiful women,” and devoted his later years to painting for elite patrons. Shunsho Katsukawa’s early prints are not signed. Instead, they are sealed with the character “hayashi” enclosed within the shape of a bronze jar (tsubo). This seal belonged to Shichiemon Hayashiya, the publisher with whom Shunsho lived with for a time.