Category Archives: Ukiyo-e woodblock prints

TWO FLOWERS AT THE GENKAN (Miyagawa Shuntei)

Fine polychrome woodblock print depicting two bijin (美人) beauties at the genkan entrance (玄関) of an elegant dwelling from which they are about to leave. The work, made in August 1897 by the artist Miyagawa Shuntei, is taken from a series that, as intended by the author, should have been entitled “Flowers of the Floating World” (浮世の花) but that, following a game of assonances of the ideograms, was entitled “Flowers Full of Joy and Good Luck” (有喜吉之華).

Shuntei (1873 – 1914) was born in Aichi Prefecture (愛知県) and lived most of his life in Tokyo. He studied painting with Watanabe Shoka (渡辺小華) and Tomioka Eisen (富岡永洗) and was a prolific designer for book and newspaper illustrations as well as various series of woodblock prints. His most refined works are those that portray women and children.

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CYPRESS AND EAGLE OWL (Imao Keinen)

Charming large format woodblock print depicting an eagle owl (ミミズク) spreading its wings on the branch of a hinoki (ヒノキ) cypress in a moonlit night. The work is taken from the volume “Autumn” (秋) of the famous Keinen Kacho Gafu (景年花鳥画譜), the album in 4 volumes of flowers and birds made in 1892 by the artist Imao Keinen (今尾景年).

Imao Keinen (1845 – 1924) has received, since the age of twelve, a complete and in-depth education that ranged among the most varied artistic styles of the Japanese tradition. Professor of painting in Kyoto, he was a member of the art committee of the imperial court and of Nihon Geijutsuin (日本芸術院), the highest ranking artistic organization in Japan.

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BEAUTY AND ATAGO SHRINE (Keisai Eisen)

Important polychrome woodblock print of vertical large oban (大判) format, made around 1830 by the artist Keisai Eisen (渓斎英泉) and by the publisher Sanoya Kihei (佐野屋喜兵衛), owner of Kikakudo (喜鶴堂). The work, depicting a bijin (美人) refreshing with a towel, is taken from the famous series “Edo Meisho Bijin Awase” (江戸名所美人合), that is “Famous Views of Edo and Beauties Compared”. In the upper inset cartouche, a view of Tokyo Bay (東京湾) and Atago Shrine (愛宕神社).

Atago Shrine is known for its steep flight of 86 stairs, visible at the top right of the print, dubbed the “stone steps to success” (出世の石段), which owes its nickname to a young ambitious samurai, who dared to ride his horse up and down the stairway winning much praise from the shogun, and that still today attracts many devotees who wish to achieve career advancement and promotion.

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AUTUMN LEAVES AT KAIANJI TEMPLE (Utagawa Hiroshige)

Important polychrome woodblock print of large horizontal format, made between 1832 and 1838 by the famous artist Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重). The work is taken from the series “Famous Places in the Eastern Capital” (東都名所) and is titled “Depiction of Red Maple Leaves at Kaianji temple” (海案寺紅葉ノ図).

Founded in 1251 following the discovery of a statue of Kannon (観音) in the stomach of a shark, the Kaianji temple (海案寺), which in the ancient Edo (江戸) was immediately behind the Tokyo Bay (東京湾), was a famous place to admire the cherry blossoms. However, it was also much appreciated for the beauty of the autumn leaves visible in the park adjacent to the temple, which we see depicted in this print.

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MOTHER NURSING A BABY (Toyohara Kunichika)

In this charming original woodblock print made in 1883, the artist Toyohara Kunichika (豊原国周) decidedly diverges from his habitual representation of female beauty embodied by unapproachable noblewomen and courtesans, and presents the lovely scene of a breastfeeding, within a domestic environment between tableware and toys, during which a mother and an infant exchange tenderness.

The work, produced by the publisher Komiyama Shohei (小宮山昇平) and by the carver Wada Yujiro (和田勇次郎), is taken from the series “Newly Woven Brocades: Beauties of Musashi” (錦織武蔵の別品), where “Musashi” is a reference to the plain that extends across the modern Tokyo.

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MOUNT ATAGO IN SNOW (Utagawa Hiroshige II)

Beautiful original woodblock print made by the artist Utagawa Hiroshige II (二代目歌川広重), entitled “Mount Atago in Snow” (愛宕山雪中) and depicting the Atago Shrine (愛宕神社) in Tokyo and, in particular, its steep flight of 86 stairs, dubbed the “stone steps to success” (出世の石段), which owes its nickname to a young ambitious samurai, who dared to ride his horse up and down the stairway winning much praise from the shogun, and that still today attracts many devotees who wish to achieve career advancement and promotion.

The work was printed around 1860 and is taken from the series Edo meisho yonju hakkei (江戸名所四十八景), ie “Forty-Eight Views of Famous Places of Edo”, produced by the publisher Tsutaya Kichizo (蔦屋吉蔵), owner of Koeido (紅英堂).

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LADIES IN WAITING AND NAGINATA (Toyohara Chikanobu)

During the Tokugawa period (徳川時代) the ladies of the Edo Castle (江戸城) trained in the use of swords and naginata (薙刀). There was also a specially trained unit who guarded the women’s quarters of the shogun’s residence. The artist Toyohara Chikanobu (豊原周延), among the last witnesses of a world that was disappearing, depicts some ladies in waiting, of what had become the Imperial Palace Castle (宮城), while practicing those ancient martial arts.

The precious triptych of polychrome woodblock prints, made in April 1896 by the publisher Fukuda Hatsujiro (福田初次郎) owner of Gusokuya (具足屋), is entitled “Practicing Naginata” (長刀稽古) and is taken from the series “Chiyoda Inner Palace” (千代田之大奥).

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SHAMISEN PLAYER (Utagawa Kunisada)

Important original woodblock print made around 1820 by the artist Utagawa Kunisada (歌川国貞) and depicting a shamisen (三味線) player while tuning her instrument. The work is taken from the famous, and rare, series entitled “Omoigoto kagami no utsushi-e” (思事鏡冩繪), that is “Thoughts Reflected in a Mirror”. In the upper inset, a servant washing the feet of a bijin (美人) beauty.

The print was produced by the publisher Matsumura Tatsuemon (松村辰右衛門) and is signed “Gototei Kunisada” (五渡亭国貞), which is the most common pseudonym used by Kunisada before 1844 and which literally means “Kunisada of the Fifth Ferry Pavilion”, a reference to the ferry service owned by his family.

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ORANGE BLOSSOM (Kikukawa Eizan)

Important polychrome woodblock print of vertical large oban (大判) format made around 1830 by the famous artist Kikukawa Eizan (菊川英山). The protagonist of the work is the courtesan Tachibana (たち花), that is “orange blossom”, of the Tsuruya (鶴屋) pleasure house, of which at the top right we read the address “Kyomachi Itchome” (京町壱丁目). The woman is depicted under the flowering branches of a cherry tree, in the company of two young assistants named Sakon (さこん) and Ukon (うこん).

Eizan (1787 – 1867) was the most prolific, longest-lived and ultimately the best of the late followers of Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿), who attempted to carry on the style of the bijin (美人) beauties of the master after the death of the latter, occurred in 1806.

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BENKEI ON THE BRIDGE (Utagawa Yoshiiku)

Musashibo Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶) was a sohei (僧兵) warrior monk who lived in the 12th century. His adventures have become legendary and it is now impossible to distinguish historical truth from myth. At some point in his life – the one depicted in this print – Benkei lurked on the Gojo Bridge (五条大橋), in Kyoto (京都), and there he challenged to a duel the warriors who wanted to cross it to get as a reward the weapons of the defeated opponents. According to tradition, in fact, he had asked a famous swordsmith to forge a armour for him, and the latter accepted as long as Benkei brought him a thousand swords. And, in effect, he managed to get nine hundred ninety-nine swords, until, on that bridge, he was defeated by his future lord Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経).

In the precious woodblock print presented here, central table of a triptych made by the artist Utagawa Yoshiiku (歌川芳幾) and entitled “Parody of Benkei on the bridge” (見立橋弁慶), the protagonist is presented with the scene name “Benkei Dazaemon” (弁慶太左衛門).

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