Hello everyone and welcome to my article on Yakusha-e. In this article, I will talk about the meaning of the word Yakusha-e, his etymology and his history, then I will present the main artists of this sub-genre of Ukiyo-e.
Please, enjoy your reading and don’t hesitate to comment. If I made any mistake, I will do my best to correct it as quickly as possible.
- Yakusha-e definition
- Etymology of Yakusha-e
- The origins of Yakusha-e
- A meeting point between Ukiyo-e and Kabuki
- Flourishing of Yakusha-e and the Torii school
- The mysterious genius of Yakusha-e, Toshusai Sharaku
- From Torii school to Katsukawa school, 18th century
- From Katsukawa school to Utagawa school, 19th century
- Famous artist of the Yakusha-e style
- Hokusai and Kabuki actors, Yakusha-e
- Kiyonobu Torii, The Torii school founder.
- Kiyomitsu Torii,third head of the Torii school
- Toshusai Sharaku, the yakusha-e genious
- Katsukawa Shunsui, the Katsukawa school founder
- Katsukawa Shunshō, a prolific artist in the Katsugawa school
- Utagawa Toyokuni, propulsion to fame of the Utagawa school
- Utagawa Kunisada, the pinnacle of the Utagawa school
2. Yakusha-e definition
Yakusha-e is a Japanese art sub-genre of Ukiyo-e which depicts kabuki actors; Ukiyo-e describing kabuki actors often as portrait or during their play in theaters, behind the theater scene and in extravagant poses.
3. Etymology of Yakusha-e
As you can see this word is composed of 3 characters (3 kanjis):
- The first kanji is 役 which means “role” and his reading is “yaku”.
- The second kanji is 者 which means “person” and his reading is “sha”.
- The third kanji is 絵 which means “picture” and his reading is “e”.
4. The origins of Yakusha-e
A meeting point between Ukiyo-e and Kabuki
During the Edo period, Kabuki was one of the biggest entertainment in urban life. In large cities such as Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto, many Kabuki troupes performed almost always in one place.
The growing popularity of plays has led to the development of the genre of play-related prints. Prints in unique styles related to the performance, such as posters, performance schedules, and programs, were published, while prints depicting the actors themselves became popular.
Like the geisha (whose was also depicted in bijin-ga), the actors were fashionable creatures. The viewers’ interest was focused not only on performance of various roles, but also on the appearance of the actors in the dressing room and behind the scenes.
Flourishing of Yakusha-e and the Torii school
From the end of the seventeenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Torii school flourished. The leader was Kiyonobu Torii (1664-1729). Torii painters, with Kabuki as their main theme, drew a single actor and published woodcuts (programs, performance schedules, etc.) related to the playhouse.
Torii painters actively used new techniques of woodblock printing (beni-e(pinkish rose color) and urushi-e(lacquer)). Among the disciples of Kiyonobu Torii, Kiyotori Torii (1694–1716) and Kiyomitsu Torii (1735–1785) are the most famous.
The painters of this school created a unique style of drawing a single figure, or two or three actors, in a “striking theatrical poses” for a play on a neutral background. The important thing for the Torii painters was to convey the atmosphere of the playhouse and to depict the actors performing the climax of the play.
The mysterious genius of Yakusha-e, Toshusai Sharaku
An isolated entity in the history of Ukiyo-e is Toshusai Sharaku (active period 1794–1795). From the studio of the famous publisher, Jusaburo Tsutaya, over a few months, more than 140 paintings of Kabuki actors in various roles will be published by the artist.
Later, Sharaku suddenly disappeared. All of his works were outstanding. By consciously exaggerating and distorting the intense peculiarity of grotesque, proportions, gestures, facial contours, etc., he created a rich expression that can be compared to a human figure.
A mysterious genius painter, Toshusai Sharaku, created an actor-painting style that intentionally exaggerated the face and completely changed the Yakusha-e’s painting. It is the actor’s own face, not the role drawn, that peeks from under the thickly painted stage makeup.
From Torii school to Katsukawa school, 18th century
Following Sharaku, painters of the Katsukawa school produced bust-length portraits. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Katsukawa school occupies a leading position in the actor painting genre. Katsukawa’s founder, Katsukawa Shunsui, developed actor paintings of two types.
The first is a portrait of the actor against the backdrop of the stage curtain in a static pose, viewed from the front, and the second is the actor behind the dressing room, which is an intimate settings. Attempts to see the world of actors behind the mask of stage make-up were made by other painters of the Katsukawa school (Katsukawa Shunshō, Katsukawa Shunei) and their contemporaries.
From Katsukawa school to Utagawa school, 19th century
It was the Utagawa school that drew actor paintings exclusively in the nineteenth century. The first Utagawa Toyokuni (1769–1825) led the Utagawa school from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century, drawing a full-length portrait of the actor on a neutral-colored background. Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), who led the school in the early nineteenth century, produced prints of complex compositions.
This is related to the development of Kabuki stage art. Theatrical art was becoming more complex, using perspectives, tricks and deceptive effects. Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), a leading painter of the same school, initially painted actor paintings, but later painted battle scenes and warrior paintings to further enhance his name.
Famous artist of the Kacho-ga style
Hokusai and Kabuki actors, Yakusha-e
When you do an article about ukiyo-e and their sub-genre, you have to check if Hokusai did try it or not. And in most cases, he did. Therefore, I will present some of Hokusai Yakusha-e, kabuki actors ukiyo-e, art.
In the summer of 1779 Hokusai published a series of portraits of Kabuki actors, which he signed with the name Katsukawa Shunro. “Shunro” is one of the numerous names adopted by Hokusai in his lifetime.
Kiyonobu Torii, The Torii school founder.
Torii Kiyonobu I is said to have been one of the founders of the Torii school of painting. Kiyonobu was recognized as an important artist of the time with a unique style. Kiyonobu was in the marketing business of the time, he was creating billboards and other promotional material for the Kabuki theaters. Therefore, their creation needed to attract the eye, the attention of the passer-by. So, Kiyonobu’s style became bold, exuberant in color and thick lines.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Kiyonobu was an accomplished and renowned artist. His work was praised and even used as offering for Shinto shrines, which suggest the quality and emotional impact of the art on the people at the time.
Kiyomitsu Torii,third head of the Torii school
Torii Kiyomitsu was the third head of the Torii school. The critics of his ukiyo-e would say that his kabuki prints are lacking originality, yet still contain the dream like beauty of the actors. It is said that the Torii school did well under his management without any innovation or change to the “Torii style”.
Toshusai Sharaku, the yakusha-e genious
In his section, I will present some of Toshusai Sharaku’s kabuki actors ukiyo-e. And Yes, he is the guy which has drawn one of the most shared kabuki actor ukiyo-e in the western world.
Katsukawa shunsui, the Katsukawa school founder
He was known as Miyagawa Shunsui before changing his name to Katsukawa shunsui, he is the founder of the Katsukawa school and style. He taught Katsukawa Shunshō.
Katsukawa Shunshō, a prolific artist in the Katsugawa school
Katsukawa Shunshō was the leading artist of the Katsukawa school. Shunshō was a disciple of Miyagawa Shunsui. Shunshō is most well known for introducing a new form of yakusha-e, prints depicting Kabuki actors.
Shunsho drew kabuki actors with a large head style, but also inside their dressing rooms which was a new perspective for the consumer to see their favorite actors in settings other than their role. When drawing the portrait of kabuki actors, he also used realistic depictions of their faces, which made the consumer able to recognize their favorite actor.
Utagawa Toyokuni, propulsion to fame of the Utagawa school
After being the disciple of the founder of the Utagawa school, Utagawa Toyokuni became his successor. As the second head of the school, he moved the school to a position of renown, fame and power through the 19th century.
Utagawa Kunisada, the pinnacle of the Utagawa school
Utagawa Kunisada, also known as Utagawa Toyokuni III, was a very famous and successful ukiyo-e artist of the 19th century. It is even said that in his life time, he was even more famous than Hokusai or Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi.
Kunisada was Utagawa Toyokuni I disciple, he was taken under his wing at a young age after Toyokuni saw his early sketches. In 1809, he was sited as a “Star attraction” by others contemporary writers of the time, then he was considered as good as his teacher Toyokuni.
Kunisada was an avangardist of his time, and always popular with the public, he always worked on his own style and evolved in time, sometimes with hard turn. He also didn’t take care of the constraint of his contemporaries.
It seems that he was really passionate by his work and/or a workaholic, because all his work has been cataloged and it represent an impressive amount. He produced around 20,000 and 25,000 individual designs for ukiyo-e in his lifetime.
Here you have it, I have presented to you some of the Yakusha-e artist. But, there are a lot of them out there, therefore, I have hand picked today’s list. I hope you enjoyed it.
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