Isoda Koryûsai (active c. 1766-88)
Koryûsai's family name was Isoda. He had a connection with the house of Tsuchiya, perhaps as a samurai retainer, but after
his lord's death Koryûsai became a rônin ("wave man," a samurai without a lord or master). He seems to
have relinquished his samurai ranking and then moved to the Yagenbori district near the Ryûgoku Bridge in Edo (a few of his
signatures bear the prefix Yagenbori inshi, "Recluse of Yagenbori"). Another of his signatures was Koryûsai
Haruhiro, which suggests a direct, perhaps student-teacher, relationship with the preeminent ukiyo-e master
Suzuki Harunobu, who lived nearby in Yonezawa-chô. Koryûsai's early works clearly
show Harunobu's influence, but he eventually developed his own style (see below).
Among his most notable achievements were his hashira-e ("pillar-prints"), arguably among the best designs ever
created in the format. Many of his kachô-e ("bird and flower prints") and shunga ("spring pictures"
or erotica; also called makura-e or "pillow pictures") were also quite accomplished. It is possible that Koryûsai abandoned printmaking by 1780 to concentrate exclusively
on painting, another genre in which he excelled. It is known that he was awarded the title of hokkyô (literally "bridge
of the law"), an honorary ranking that since the Nara period (710-784) had been given to priests, although by the Edo period
(1603-1868) also extended to artists and artisans. All-told, Koryûsai designed over 2,500 prints, possibly making him the most
prolific designer of single-sheet prints in eighteenth century Japan.
The design on the top right is from the series of chûban-format prints titled Fûryû jaho hakkei ("Eight
Views of Fashionable Housekeepers"). It is an early work by Koryûsai that shows the influence of Harunobu. The
two young women are engaged in heating silk floss over a lacquer brazier (referred to in the print's subtitle as a nurioke or
"lacquered pail"). The standing figure is depicted as an almost impossibly slim idealization of young womanhood, delicate
and coy, with that ethereal quality so often associated with Harunobu's creations. Overall, it is a most charming scene in the Harunobu
manner. This particular impression is partly faded, with the blue and red substantially altered. The well-preserved though slightly
tarnished dark orange (made from tan or red lead) was a standard colorant often found in earlier ukiyo-e, but it was much favored
by Koryûsai and became something of a "signature" pigment in his work. It was fairly colorfast and so even in prints
with significant fading, the red lead pigment often remains unchanged in hue (see also an example by Bunchô),
though sometimes showing variable degrees of tarnishing. Many of Koryûsai's prints are found in such condition.
By 1774-75 Koryûsai began to escape the influence of Harunobu and develop his own style of bijinga (prints of beautiful women). He abandoned the winsome,
delicate creatures like those above and began introducing women who were significantly more substantial, with greater weight and volume.
These beauties commanded center stage and more completely filled the pictorial space. (It should be noted that other artists also began
to concentrate on larger figures in the ôban format during the mid- to late-1770s, such as Kitao
Shigemasa, whose masterpieces in this genre are readily identifiable by their distinctive style.)
Koryûsai's most important
body of work in this new manner was the series Hinagata wakana no hatsu moyo ("Patterns for New Year Fashions, Fresh as Young
Leaves"), published in the ôban format by Nishimura Eijûdô (with some issued by Jûzaburô) from
about 1776 to 1782. At least 140 designs are known by Koryûsai (plus another eleven added by
Torii Kiyonaga); the number of prints suggest that the series was
quite popular. The shift from chûban to the larger size helped to establish the ôban as the standard format in ukiyo-e printmaking, and the new ideal of a more ample female figure influenced the next generation of artists, including Kiyonaga. In fact,
Kiyonaga, as well as Katsukawa Shunzan, continued this series, also under the direction of Eijûdô
The illustration on the lower right depicts the oiran (high-ranking courtesan) Nioteru of the Ogiya brothel with her two shinzô (teenage attendants, literally "newly
launched" courtesans) and kamuro (younger girl attendants) on parade in the Yoshiwara during the sixth month (as identified by the
subtitle, minazuki). Nioteru and her kamuro wear similar black robes patterned with breaking waves, while one of Nioteru's underrobes
has a design with the character kotobuki (meaning "long life" as well as "congratulations"). The colors on this
specimen are faded, particularly blue and purple. The increased size of the format is matched by the greater volume and mass of the figures.
The arrangement of the women is notable, with the attendants walking in a circular constellation around their mistress. In prints such as
this, Koryûsai dramatically separated himself from Harunobu's fragile idealizations and introduced greater realism in his portrayal
of the women of the pleasure quarters. © 2001 by John Fiorillo
- Brea, L. and Kondo, E.: Ukiyo-e Prints and Paintings: From the Early Masters to Shunshô. Genoa: Edoardo Chiossone Civic Museum of Oriental Art, 1980, pp. 170-213.
- Gentles, M.: The Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints: Volume II. Art Institute of Chicago, 1965, pp. 181-274.
- Hockley, A.: The Prints of Isoda Koryûsai: Floating World Culture and Its Consumers in Eighteenth-Century Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.