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Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)

Minamoto no Tametomo Rescued by Tengu

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1849
Size (H x W): 14 x 29 (inches)
Publisher: Sumiyoshiya Masagoro
Seals: Mera and Watanabe
Signature: Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga
Condition: Very fine color, impression and state.



In one of his most iconic triptychs, Kuniyoshi draws from Bakin’s novel Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki to depict Minamoto no Tametomo’s supernatural rescue from a storm. Defeated in 1156 during the Hogen rebellion, Tametomo was exiled to Izu. He soon escaped to Kyushu where he plotted the defeat of the Taira clan. As he set sail to Kyoto to carry out his plan, a wild storm threatened his boat. In this fantastic print, Kuniyoshi conflates the three moments that lead to Tametomo’s dramatic rescue.

To the far right, Tametomo’s wife drowns herself to quell the storm. The spirit of Emperor Sutoku (Sanuki-In) summons the tengu that descend from the left edge of the triptych to save Tametomo and their only son, Sutemaru. The infant is protected in the arms of Tametomo’s faithful retainer Kiheiji, who rides on the back of a crocodile-shark (wanizame).

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.