A Brief Biography of Utagawa Kuniyoshi


   The artist who was to be known to history as Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳) was born in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1797.  He was the son of a silk dyer named Yanagiya Kichiemon and was given the name Yoshisaburô (芳三郎) at birth.  At the age of 14, Yoshisaburô joined the Utagawa School of ukiyo-e artists, then headed by Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769 - 1825).  Toyokuni I gave Yoshisaburô the name Utagawa Kuniyoshi; “Kuniyoshi” being a combination of the names “Toyokuni” (豐國) and “Yoshisaburô” (芳三郎).


   In 1814, Kuniyoshi ended his apprenticeship and set out as an independent artist.  He initially produced actor prints in the style of his teacher, which gained him little recognition.  Kuniyoshi achieved a commercial and artistic breakthrough in 1827 with the first six designs of the series, The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden.  The series was bases upon a 14th century Chinese novel about the adventures of a band of 108 honorable bandits and rebels.


   In 1843, he designed the triptych, In Minamoto’s Residence the Earth Spider Appears as a Monster, which satirized Mizuno Tadakuni, who was the chief councilor to the shogun, and bore much of the responsibility for the strict censorship of ukiyo-e prints.  This triptych, which was printed in several editions because of its popularity with the politically dissatisfied, landed Kuniyoshi in trouble with the authorities.


   Like his teacher, Kuniyoshi had many students including Kyôsai (briefly), Yoshifuji, Yoshifusa, Yoshiharu, Yoshiiku, Yoshikage, Yoshikata, Yoshikatsu, Yoshikazu, Yoshimori, Yoshimune, Yoshinao*, Yoshinobu*, Yoshitora, Yoshitori, Yoshitoshi, Yoshitoyo*, Yoshitsuna, Yoshitsuya, and Yoshiyuki.  Kuniyoshi had a special fondness for cats, which overran his studio and are portrayed in many of his prints.


   Although Kuniyoshi is now universally known as Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳), he also used the names Ichiyûsai Kuniyoshi (一勇彩 国芳), Chô-ô- Kuniyoshi (朝櫻楼 国芳), Ikusa Kuniyoshi (井草 国芳), and Saihôsa Kuniyoshi (採芳舎 国芳).  He died from complications of a stroke on April 14, 1861.


   *These names were used by unrelated print artists in the city of Ôsaka as well as by the Edo artists who studied with Kuniyoshi.