A History of Japanese Colour-Prints/THE CULMINATION: KIYONAGA

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The great and aristocratic school of the Torii, which had stamped its impress upon wood-engraving in its primitive stages, and had played a determining part in all its subsequent changes and developments, from the hand-coloured black and white print through the two- and three-colour prints, had for a decade past been rather relegated to the background, when, about the middle of the seventies of the eighteenth century, (Tori­) () (Kiyo­) (naga)Torii Kiyonaga took the lead, thenceforth to dominate the art of Japanese wood-engraving through two decades, and to bring it to such a culmination as only Moronobu had achieved equally undisputedly, just one hundred years before. The far-reaching innovation brought about by the invention of the perfect polychrome print (1765) had meanwhile diverted the aim of this art, which till then had consisted in realising as fully as possible an entirely personal intuition, in the direction of a pleasing play of form and colour. Such must have appeared to the old school incompatible with its hitherto so simple and yet so vigorous activity. More suddenly even than in ancient Florence the school of Giotto yielded to the victorious onset of the new generation, the Torii school disappeared before the revolutionising activity of the three young masters, Harunobu, Shigemasa, and Shunsho. The creative energy of this school, cultivated and perfected through generations, was, however, destined to receive, after a decade of repose devoted to careful preparation, a final and supreme incarnation in Kiyonaga, who brought to the service of an art aiming only at the simply great and beautiful, all the means of expression that had meanwhile been perfected. It is significant that his teacher, Kiyomitsu, the last of the pure Torii masters, did not influence the full unfolding of his nature so much as did the most versatile of the newly arisen school of artists, Shigemasa. It is true that Kiyonaga, who was the son of a publisher, had produced, shortly before the beginning of this new period, three-colour actor prints in the old style, but no one could have divined from these productions the future greatness of the man. During the time that Shunsho turned to the neglected field of actor representation and cultivated it in a new style notable for its charm of colour effect, Kiyonaga was collecting his strength while following this new movement with intelligent sympathy. Then he suddenly appears as the fully matured artist, who, thanks to his inherited loftiness of aim and nobility of taste, found it easy to surpass these meritorious yet more or less superficial innovators, to put them aside without an effort, and himself, as it were unintentionally, in their place. In the second half of the seventies he had already brought his own peculiar style to full maturity; from the beginning of the eighties he was the autocrat of wood-engraving, and saw the pupils of his predecessors pass under his banner.[1]

Kiyonaga was born in 1742 and died in 1815 (Hayashi Catalogue). His family name was Seki, his artistic name Ichibei. According to the Tokio Catalogue his activity began about 1760. He became, along with Koriusai and Harunobu, the most important designer of kakemono-ye. Fenollosa[2] has written a good estimate of his art, and reproduces[3] a fine print of about 1786. With the beginning of the seventies he came under the influence Vever Collection, Paris

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Kiyónaga: A Terrace by the Sea. A young man and a geisha in blue; two servants near them; behind him his betrothed; to the right two friends. Pink, grey, and black predominate. A diptych in a series of twelve.

of both Harunobu and Shigemasa, but the latter finally gained the upper hand towards the end of the decade. An early actor print, in three colours, is quoted by H. E. Field in The Art of Kiyonaga.[4]

What then are the innovations which he introduced and to which Japanese art owed its advance beyond all previous efforts to the summit of its achievement? First of all, complete liberation from all conventionalism. Of the arbitrary treatment which the primitives had allowed in dealing with the human body, there had remained a trace even up to his time; for the sake of a stronger decorative effect, or greater gracefulness, hands and feet had been drawn too small, or the body too slender and too flexible, or the features too delicate. To all this Kiyonaga now, guided by a highly developed sense of beauty, opposed normal proportions of the body. His figures, during the period of his highest power—for he too, later, following the tendency of the time, leaned toward exaggerated proportions—are absolutely symmetrical, of a healthy roundness and well set up. They move with a natural quiet grace and dignity which has caused them to be compared not unjustly with the noble figures of the most highly developed Greek art. They have been purged of all the mannerisms that played so great a part in the creations of the primitives, without, it is true, prejudicing their artistic effect, as the goal of these artists was not at all the exact rendering of nature, but only the presentation of single characteristic motives of movement. But even that affectation which prevailed in the works of the first artists in free polychrome, and which resulted from insufficient study of nature, was in his case almost non-existent. Knowledge of reality and reverence for it led to a complete renovation of style.

This healthy realism in the creations of Kiyonaga points to a revolution in Japanese art, as from now on—until new mannerisms arose—the one-sidedly decorative element in drawing receded, effects of this kind being attempted by colour rendering only. We must not, indeed, suppose that any naturalistic imitation was aimed at; this latter remained, as appears from the lack of perspective and shadows, absolutely foreign to Japanese art during its highest period. But something essentially new had been acquired by the mere fact that, as the figures were conceived in relation to natural realities, it was necessary to give them a fixed position in a real space. By this means the representation was rounded off into a pictorial whole. In place of the background, hitherto only adumbrated by a single tint, there now appeared a definitely indicated interior or a finished landscape, which formerly had been done only incidentally and without full recognition of its necessity. In contrast with previous attempts, Kiyonaga may be regarded as the first real landscapist of Japan. By the choice of his colouring, and especially by the well-considered admixture of yellow tones, he imparted to his representations of outdoor life the charm of a cheerful sunshiny aspect.

The pictorial rounding-off of the design also finally led to an entirely new manner of composition. So far, thought had been given only to the balance of the individual parts, both in black and white and also in the colour-scheme generally; but now the aim was to fill out the given area completely in a manner pleasing to the eye. This Kiyonaga did with perfect mastery. As he had found perfect symmetry for the figures themselves, so also he introduced it, with effortless ease, into the composition as a whole, so that in his representations everything is rendered as with the inevitableness of nature. Each of his compositions, mostly representing women in conversation, following their daily occupations, walking out of doors with their children, forms a completely rounded whole, and yet how many of them form only parts of those great triptych represen Vever Collection, Paris

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KIYÓNAGA: Three Singers at the Bath. Grey ground.

tations, closely interconnected in their parts, which henceforward achieved an ever greater vogue. Of Kiyonaga it is really true to say what many collectors seek to persuade themselves of in respect to such fragments in general, that his sheets have been so composed in the beginning that, according to choice or necessity, they may be used singly, or in pairs, or as triptychs; although, as a rule, the full effect intended by the artist is only attained in the complete composition. The colour strives as little as the drawing for independent effect in Kiyonaga's work, for it too aims only at giving clear and graceful expression to the object; but in its plainness and simplicity it contributes as much toward the general effect of monumental greatness as does the design. Unfortunately, it is especially in the works of Kiyonaga that the colours have seldom retained their full strength, whether on account of their chemical composition, or because the sheets were much in request as wall decorations and have therefore been much exposed to the decomposing action of the sunlight; on their greatly faded appearance is probably based the idea that in the reduction of colour to the merest trace we may recognise a refinement purposely introduced by the artist.

All these qualities that result from a beautiful equilibrium of forces would doubtless have given the master an eminent historical position even without the addition of any pronounced originality, though they would not alone have lifted him to the first rank of the artists of his country. But a still more important quality of Kiyonaga's work consists in the singular charm which emanates from his creations, and which, in contrast with the effeminacy prevailing in most of the works of his predecessors, may be designated as the breath of an eminently virile spirit, sure of itself, and aspiring to high achievements. Without aiming at any special charm or refinement of soul-portrayal, that is, without informing his figures with any strong emotion, gentle or forceful, nor indeed individualising them in any remarkable way, he was yet able to impress the stamp of life and movement upon all his compositions; it is precisely in the outward repose, equable and graceful, with which he endowed them that he shows himself the truest embodier of that ideal of propriety, so highly valued among the Japanese as among all Asiatic nations of culture, which celebrates its highest triumphs in the greatest possible restraint of the emotions, without ever petrifying into a senseless formalism; on the contrary, through this manner of expression, the consciousness of the natural dignity of man appears all the more clearly and inspires the spectator to rise superior to the vulgar agitations of passion and desire. It was only as uniting in himself all previous aspirations, and now as master in addition of all the treasures of grace, charm, magic, and beauty meanwhile discovered, that Kiyonaga was enabled to achieve once more a style as powerful as that of Moronobu, the founder of Japanese wood-engraving one hundred years earlier, when the latter, without special preparation and without the facilities of later times, stood facing a whole world of phenomena unexplored.

When Kiyomitsu died Kiyonaga assumed the name of the fourth Torii, to show that he was the head of the fourth generation of Torii. Later, however, when he had perfected a style of his own, he abandoned the designation Torii. With the end of the ninth decade there came for Kiyonaga also, in one direction, a decline. The proportions of his figures became long and inclined toward an exaggerated elegance, and particularly his faces took that oval form which thenceforth became almost universally prevalent, and is especially frequent in the works of Utamaro, but which is sharply distinguished from the rectangular formation which Kiyonaga preferred in the days of his strength. The arbitrary virtuosity of his contours increased more and more, but, on the other hand, he still preserved his other excellences; Koepping Collection, Berlin

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Kiyónaga: Musical Entertainment with the Kóto (below) and the Šhamišen.

the strong distribution of black and white, the rich and yet restrained patterning of the dresses, and the pure outline of the nude. Towards the end of his career he turned again to the representation of actors, resuming the tradition of his school and entering into direct and victorious rivalry with Shunsho. Theatre-programmes in black and white by him date from 1785 to 1799. Although he began to retire from the field in the nineties, probably feeling that a new day was dawning which could conduct him no higher but only into regions where his co-operation was not absolutely needed, he yet continued at work as late as 1801 at least, from which year dates a still extant print of children at play (Hayashi Catalogue, No. 701). He transferred the successorship to Toyokuni, and retained for himself, as the last great representative of the brilliant Torii school, only the part of chief leader and master of the school. Fenollosa is accordingly mistaken in assuming that he gave up working for the wood-engravers as early as the beginning of the nineties.

Among his numerous works, some especially beautiful kakemono-ye deserve mention:—

  • The woman under the umbrella (according to Fenollosa, No. 233, about 1782).
  • The woman in the storm (about 1787).
  • A woman standing, and one crouching on the ground, engaged in writing.

Of other single sheets the following may be mentioned:—

  • Actors, early three-colour print.
  • Temple festival, eight geishas carrying a lion. 1783.
  • Woman in bath-robe, with a little dog.
  • Kintoki playing with young tengus.
  • Kintoki with two bear cubs.
  • Boy seated, playing with mice.
  • Children at play. 1801.
  • The actor Danjuro making up; oblong surimono.
  • Toilet scene, six figures, oblong (Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum).
  • The Suruga Street in Yedo on New Year's Day, 1780, black and white, intended to be coloured by hand; probable the largest print ever produced by a Japanese wood-engraver.

Of series:

  • The twelve months of the year, represented by women.
  • Another set of the same.
  • Eight landscapes of Yedo, in lateral form.

Reproductions of his work are given by Strange, plate i. and at page 28, and more especially by H. E. Field on four plates in the Burlington Magazine (see supra), where works typical of every stage of Kiyonaga's development are brought together. Especially notable are his compositions in triptych form:—

  • Three actors, about 1779 (Fenollosa, No. 229), dating from the earliest time of his independent activity, reminding us of Shunsho; a rarity in this kind of representation.
  • The celebrated boating party on the Sumida, the river running through Yedo (reproduced in Bing's Catalogue from his Japon Artistique).
  • Women stepping out of a boat; one of his most beautiful works.
  • Women on verandah, looking down upon river.
  • Women in garden, dyeing cloth.
  • Pouring rain.
  • Women's bathing house (interior).
  • A flute player before a company of women.
  • A young prince with falcon, surrounded by women, Fuji in background.
  • A party in a boat enjoying the tricks of a monkey.

His few illustrated books are called incomparable by Fenollosa. The Hayashi Catalogue (No. 1577, seqq.) tabulates such books of the years 1777 to 1791. Duret cites a further book of 1798, 3 vols., Yedo.

  • Kugai junen irojigoku, Ten Years of Torment in Love's Inferno, 1791.

(Part of the twelve-sheet print of Silkworm Culture)
British Museum

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Burty (Catalogue, No. 181) attributes to him, doubtless quite correctly, a charming book, the Yehon monomigaoka, excursions according to the season (Yedo, 1785) 2 vols., small, with illustrations in black and white, signed Seki Kiyonaga.

The three pupils of Shunsho named in the preceding chapter who wholly adopted Kiyonaga’s style, are the following:—

(Kubo ) (Shun­) (man) Kubo Summan (Shunman) was originally a pupil of Shigemasa and then went over to Shunsho, but when Kiyonaga came into full supremacy he took from him his method of composition and form, without however subjecting himself blindly to his influence.[5] The time of his activity began with the close of the eighties and lasted until about 1820. According to the Hayashi Catalogue (No. 510) his name in art was Yasubei. A peculiar personal magic which attaches to his nature preserved him from slavish imitation. Though his sheets closely approach those of Kiyonaga in general appearance he yet stamps each detail with his own individuality. His work was very unequal; even during his best period, in the beginning of the tenth decade, it was alternately refined in expression and delicate in drawing and then again full of arbitrary mannerisms. To him must be referred the attempts to ground the large tripartite sheets on a principal tone of grey, with a sparing but intelligent addition of other colours. Books illustrated by him appeared in Yedo, 1795-1815. A very fine polychrome book, called Goju nirishu, the Fifty-one Poets, 1801, is also his work (Gillot). He is also supposed to have occupied himself with the illustration of humorous verse. A New Year's visit in the snow, in the environs of Yedo, is reproduced by Gonse, Art Japonais, i. p. 218.

Of his triptychs, one with a woman in landscape is highly praised (Fenollosa No. 281), as also the sea-water carriers; of his surimonos, a series of flowers; further, representations from the animal kingdom: starlings flying across the red sun, 1815 (reproduced by Gonse, i. p. 266), butterflies, &c.

(Katsu­) (kawa ) (Shun­) (cho) Katsukawa Shuncho was probably in the beginning a pupil of Shunsho, but attached himself most closely to Kiyonaga from the beginning of the eighties on.[6] He was gentler by nature than his first teacher, and became a most faithful imitator of the latter's mighty conqueror. He was active until the end of the century; later on he is said to have retired from the field of art, but to have lived on until 1821 at least. The change which he made in the direction of his style must have been the result of conviction, for he is by no means lacking in individuality, and could turn his gift to good account. In the matter of drawing, clear and clean though he always is, he was not able entirely to overcome the influence of his first teacher, which tended to give his contours a certain calligraphic-decorative character; on the other hand, he created for himself, in the treatment of landscapes enlivened with figures, a wholly original means of expression. At times, indeed, the manner in which he renders his landscapes is purely impressionistic. When in the further course of his activity he began to draw near to the new-risen star of Utamaro, he could still steer clear of direct imitation. Strange reproduces at page 36 the bust of a beauty treated in this style. A representation in Kiyonaga's style is reproduced by Anderson.[7]

He also signed himself Kichizayemon and Churinsha or Kisado Shuncho (Hayashi Catalogue, No. 630). Illustrated books by him date from 1786 and 1790, Yedo (ibid., No. 1536 seqq.). A diptych is dated 1786 (ibid., No. 630). The book called Growing Herbs (Yedo, 1790), 2 vols., gives a good series of pictures from woman's life from childhood to motherhood (Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum).

Of Shuncho's single sheets, the following may be mentioned:—

  • Pictures of wrestlers.
  • Triptych (about 1790, according to Fenollosa, No. 272), women stepping out of a boat; one of his most beautiful things.
  • A little girl journeying on horseback.
  • Promenades and feasts.
  • Young prince taking riding exercise.
  • Two princes shooting with the bow.
  • A print in five sections: travellers, with Fuji in the background.

Katsukawa Shunzan also began as a pupil of Shunsho, and later followed closely Kiyonaga; nor was he either lacking in force and originality.[8] He worked from the middle of the eighth decade till the end of the century. Of his triptychs, one which represents a scene at the gate of a temple is cele­brated. Reproduction in Strange, page 80; a triptych in the Hayashi Catalogue (No. 772). Fenollosa (Outline, pl. xiii.) reproduces a print of about 1777.

Fellow-pupils of Kiyonaga were the following artists: Torii Kiyotsune, who is wrongly cited by Burty (Catalogue, No. 148) as a pupil of Kiyonaga.[9] On the contrary, he betrays every­where his descent from Kiyomitsu by the graceful formation of his figures and by their very small feet and hands; he also exhibits the influence of Harunobu. Besides actor prints he produced book-illustrations; one of his books, in two volumes, appeared in Yedo in 1774 (Duret). There are mentioned as being by him:—

  • Twenty-four examples of filial love; from the Chinese.
  • Dozi gamatsu (?), the story of a child named Maruko, small size, in black and white.
  • A reproduction in Strange at page 26. Cp. supra, p. 95.

Of Torii Kiyohiro[10] Bing cites some sheets (Catalogue, No. 29).

As contemporaries of Kiyonaga we may further mention: Torii Kiyomasa (a sheet in Bing's Catalogue, No. 72), who is called the son of Kiyonaga in the Hayashi Catalogue (No. 736 and illustration), and Utagawa Kunimasa, a member of the painter-family founded by Shunsho, and a pupil of Toyokuni, q.v., of whom Bing (Catalogue, No. 231) cites:—

  • Half figures of three actors.
  • Saint praying before a waterfall.

With Kiyonaga's pupil, Kiyomine, who styled himself fifth of the Torii, and with Kiyomitsu, the Torii line, that great school of actor representation, comes to an end after an existence of a hundred years. Kiyomine (Shonosuke), who married the granddaughter of the old Kiyomitsu, began his activity in the beginning of the nineteenth century. He was still living in 1830, and apparently died at the beginning of the forties.[11] He worked in a style that reminds us of Toyokuni and Utamaro, and is at times very elegant, but often lacking in animation of expression. He also produced copies, e.g., after Kiyonobu and Kiyomasu. A print in five divisions, Imayo Gonin Bayashi, represents five female musicians (Hamburg). Strange reproduces, at page 28, a woman in half length. Another print is reproduced in the Hayashi Catalogue (No. 739). Kiyoyasu was one of his pupils (illustration, ibid., No. 740).

The following appear to be connected with Kiyonaga: Santoun (illustration, ibid., No. 765); Riuunsai (ibid., No. 767); Gentei Munataka, late (ibid., No. 768).

Bing Collection, Paris

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KIYÓTSUNE: An Actor as the Poet Botankwa on an Ox
led by a Courtesan.
In dull green and pink.

Illustrated books were produced by the following: Yamaguchi Sojun, album of drawings, Kioto, 1804; caricatures, Yedo, 1799, 3 vols. Keisan Takusho, drawings of bamboo plants, Yedo, 1804.

This is the place to revert to an artist who, like Korin a hundred years previously, occupied a position entirely unique in the development of Japanese engraving, namely, (Kita­) () (Masa­) (yoshi) Kitao Keisai Masayoshi (not Keisai Kitao Masayoshi). A son and pupil of Shigemasa (Kosiusai), he was born in 1761 and began work about 1780, at the time when Kiyonaga was at his zenith.[12] Between 1787 and 1823 he produced a number of books with reproductions of his sketches overflowing with life and esprit (see page 59), through which he influenced, not inconsiderably, the young Hokusai who, from the end of the century, was coming rapidly to the fore. He died in 1824. With him awoke anew the love of and reverence for nature, and the conscientiousness in the rendering of details which had slumbered since the days of Korin. Simultaneously with Utamaro he began to give an independent significance to landscape, and to observe carefully the shapes of animals and the formation of plants; but he does not render them with the almost meticulous accuracy of Utamaro (who always remained before all things a draughtsman), but with the strength and boldness of a painter who keeps in view the total colour impression and understands how to render it with a few broad strokes, without, however, neglecting accuracy of detail where it is essential. He often signed his books Joshin. Especially famous is an album of sketches of flowers in bloom, without contour, Yedo, 1813 (Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum); and also the Choju riakugwashiki, representations of animals, 1797. His earliest work is the Yehon Miyako no nishiki, views of Kioto, twelve coloured pictures, Kioto, 1787 (Gillot). In 1800 he published some very impressionist sketches of landscape; the eight views of Lake Biwa he represented in pairs, of oblong shape.

Vever Collection, Paris

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YEIRI: A Singer. From a series of pretty girls. Black gown, figured with cherry-blossom; pink petticoat, brick-red sash. Grey ground. Medium size.

Royal Print Room, Dresden

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YEISHI: A Lady of Rank seated and leaning on the hijikake. From a series of six plates. Yellow ground. Medium size.

Royal Print Room, Dresden

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YEISHŌ:Two Courtesans. Yellow ground. Medium size.

  1. Fenollosa Cat., Nos. 113, 124-61; Anderson Cat., p. 342; Strange, p. 26; Bing Cat., No. 34 ff.; Goncourt Cat., No. 1238 ff.
  2. Outline, p. 39 seqq.
  3. Ibid., pl. xii.
  4. Burlington Magazine, xiii., p. 241, July 1908
  5. Fenollosa Cat., Nos. 279-283; Anderson Cat., p. 344; Strange, p. 36; Bing Cat., No. 319 ff.
  6. Fenollosa Cat., Nos. 262-274; Anderson Cat., p. 363; Strange, p. 37; Bing Cat., No. 282 ff.
  7. Japanese Wood-Engraving, pl. iv.
  8. Fenollosa Cat., Nos. 275-278; Bing Cat., No. 297; Strange, p. 81. In the Hayashi Cat. (No. 772) he is called a pupil of Shunsho and Shunyei.
  9. Anderson Cat., p. 342; Fenollosa Cat., No. 168; Burty Cat., No. 150; Bing Cat., No. 33; Strange, p. 24.
  10. Anderson Cat., p. 342.
  11. Strange, p. 27; Fenollosa Cat., No. 304; Bing Cat., No. 73.
  12. Anderson Cat., p. 347; Cat. Burty, No. 204 ff.; Bing. Cat., No. 305 ff.; Fenollosa Cat., No. 222 ff. The date of Masayoshi's birth is taken from the Hayashi Cat. (No. 499).