Utagawa Kunisada I

Woodblock print portrait of Utagawa Kunisada, at the age of 80 years, dated January 1865. This memorial portrait was designed by his principal student, Kunisada II, and is one of the few known images of Kunisada.

Utagawa Kunisada I 歌川国貞 (1786-1865) 


Source: The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints, Amy Reigle Newland, Hotei Publishing Company, 2005, p.502-503;  The Japanese Print: A Historical Guide, Hugo Munsterberg, Weatherhill, 1982, p.128-131; The Art of Japanese Prints, Richard Illing, John Calmann & Cooper Ltd., 1980, p. 56-57.

Kunisada was the most prolific and commercially-successful of all woodblock print designers. Although he designed many bijin-ga (prints of beautiful women), kabuki actors were his main specialty and formed about 60% to 70% of his output of over twenty-thousand prints.

Kunisada started his career as a pupil of Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) whose name he adopted in 1844, becoming Toyokuni III (三代歌川豊国). While he changed his names several times, he is commonly referred to as Kunisada or Toyokuni III. Kunisada was not only a brilliant print maker but also an excellent businessman who had great commercial success.

Kunisada grew up in the Hongo district of Edo (Tokyo), the son of a well-to-do ferry owner. His given name was Sumida Shōgorō IX (角田庄五朗), and he was also called Sumida Shōzō (角田庄蔵).1 His father, an amateur poet of some renown, died in the year after his birth.2 In 1801, at the age of fifteen he became a pupil of Toyokuni and was given the artist name Kunisada soon thereafter. In 1807 he produced his first independent work as a book illustrator, and in 1808 his first actor print was published. In 1809 he was referred to in contemporary sources as the “star attraction” of the Utagawa school, and soon thereafter was considered as at least equal to his teacher Toyokuni in the area of book illustration.3 In about 1813 he began signing his work Gototei Kunisada (五渡亭国貞), Gototei meaning Fifth Ferry House. From the 1820s he ran a large studio which dominated print production into the beginning of the Meiji era.4 In 1827 he adopted the additional gō (artist name) Kōchōrō Kunisada (香蝶楼国貞), which he mainly used on non-actor prints, until, in 1844, he took the name Toyokuni III.5 Other listed names for the artist include Utagawa (Tsunoda), Fubō-sanjin (富望山人), Fu-chōan (富眺庵), Gepparō (月波楼), Hokubaiko (北梅戸), Ichiyūsai (一雄斎) Kinraisha (琴雷舎), and Tōjuen (桃樹園).6

Kunisada was one of the primary illustrators of popular fiction and developed close ties with prominent literary figures. His first famous series of prints (1828-42) illustrated a whimsical adaptation of the famous 11th-century Genji Monogatori (Tales of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu, a text he continued to illustrate throughout his career.7

In addition to actor prints (yakusha-e) and book illustrations (kuchi-e), he produced erotic prints (shunga), pictures of beautiful women (bijin-ga), landscapes and privately commissioned prints (surimono.) He died at the age of seventy-eight on January 12, 1865 and worked in Hongo up until his death His posthumous Buddhist name is Hōkokuin Teishōgasen Shinji and he was buried at the Banshōin Kōunji8, like Toyokuni and Kunisada II after him.9

Critical Acceptance

While Kunisada was one of the most commercially successful ukiyo-e artists and while his work was much admired by his contemporaries, he was not considered a significant artist by Western critics and his works were often called "inferior" and "decadent".  It was not until the early 1990’s, with the appearance of Jan van Doesburg’s overview of the artistic development of Kunisada, and Sebastian Izzard’s extensive study of his work, that this picture began to change, with Kunisada more clearly revealed as one of the “giants” of the Japanese print.10


Numerous artists worked in his studio and studied with him including Utagawa Sadahide (1807-1873), Utagawa Fusatane (active 1854-1888), Utagawa Kunisada II (1823-1880), Utagawa Kuniteru II (1830-1874), Utagawa Kokunimasa (1874-1944) and Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900).

1 Wikipedia website https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunisada2 Ibid.3 Ibid.4 The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints, Amy Reigle Newland, Hotei Publishing Company, 2005, p. 502.5 The name Toyokuni II had already been taken by Toyoshige (1777-1835), the son-in-law of Toyokuni.  In 1844 Kunisada signed several of his prints "Kunisada changing to the second Toyokuni," totally ignoring Toyoshige's claim to the name.6 A Dictionary of Japanese Artists: Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, Prints, Lacquer, Laurance P. Roberts, Weatherhill, 1976, p. 96-97.7 Website of the Crocker Art Museum http://www.crockerartmuseum.org/exhibitions/exhib_pages/Kunisada.htm [no longer active 12-26-23]8  Banshoin Kounji Temple in Kami-Takada (in present-day Tokyo's Nakano Ward).9 Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks 1680-1900, Andreas Marks, Tuttle Publishing, 2010, p. 120.10 op cit. Wikipedia

Kunisada Resources

The "Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) - Project" by Horst Graebner provides an overview of Kunisada's work with thousands of pictures, series titles, lists of actors and kabuki dramas portrayed by Kunisada, and detailed study of his artistic names and signatures. http://www.kunisada.de/ [accessed 12-27-23]

"Utagawa Kunisada 1 1786-1864," website of the National Diet Library https://www.ndl.go.jp/landmarks/e/artists/utagawa-kunisada-1/ [accessed 12-27-23]. Note: some inaccuracies/typos exist on this English language page.

“Kabuki at the Time of Kunisada,” Rimer, J. Thomas, appearing in Kunisada’s World, edited by S. Izzard, Japan Society, in collaboration with Ukiyo-e Society of America, New York, 1993.

Kunisada: Imaging Drama and Beauty, Henk Herwig, et. al., Hotei Publishing, Leiden, The Netherlands, 2016.

Sample Signatures and Seals

For the most comprehensive presentation of Kunisada's signatures and seals go to Horst Graebner's website "The Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) - Project at http://www.kunisada.de/Liste/kunisada-signature-seal.html.


Gotoei Kunisada ga


Gotoei Kunisada ga

 一陽斎豊国筆Ichiyōsai Toyokuni hitsu

豊国画Toyokuni ga within Toshidama cartouche 年玉枠

一陽斎豊国画Ichiyōsai Toyokuni ga inside of Toshidama cartouche 年玉枠


Kōchōrō Toyokuni ga

last revision:12/27/2023

Prints in Collection

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