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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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Shôkôsai Hanbei (active c. 1795-1809)

Shokosai Shokosai kanji Shôkôsai Hanbei (松好斎半兵衛) was a pupil of Ryûkôsai Jokei (active c. 1776 - 1809), the reputed "founder" of the Osaka school of actor portraiture. Although we know of picture books designed by Ryûkôsai as early as 1784, his surviving single-sheet prints seem to date almost entirely from 1791-93 (with at least one print from 1798), primarily dispersed sheets from triptychs in the hosoban format. These Osaka hosoban are considered the earliest woodblock-printed, full-color, single-sheet prints in Osaka. Ryûkôsai developed an arresting style of portraiture with clearly articulated physiognomy derived from the seminal portraits of the Edo artist Shunshô. Ryûkôsai's influence on future generations of Osaka print designers was significant and lingered for decades, even after the Utagawa-school (especially through Kunisada) began to dominate actor portraiture in Edo and introduce its stylistic approach in Osaka.

Shôkôsai's biography is unknown but for a few sketchy details. His actor portraiture developed on the foundation provided by Ryûkôsai's style of nigao-e (likeness pictures). His earliest confirmed print appears to date from 5/1795, although an unsigned portrait dated 4/1794 has been attributed to him. He may have designed the earliest single-sheet chûban-format prints in Osaka, publishing two designs in 9/1799. Shôkôsai designed the first color-printed picture book of actors in Osaka, the Ehon futaba aoi (Picture book: Double-leafed hollyhock, 2 vols., 1798), depicting scenes from kabuki plays performed between 1793 and 1798. Another of his admired picture books is the Ehon santô yakusha masukagami (Picture book: A brilliant mirror of actors in the three cities), published in 1806. He also illustrated eight e-iri nehon (kabuki playbooks: ) between 1801 and 1809, establihsing an Osaka genre that lasted until the 1860s. Shôkôsai's legacy includes his teaching Hokushû Shunkôsai (active c. 1806-1832), arguably the most significant master in the next generation of Osaka artists.

The styles of Ryûkôsai and Shôkôsai were similar, not surprising given their teacher-pupil relationship. Both placed their figures against plain grounds or simplified landscapes that were influenced by paintings from the Kanô and Shijô schools. Both developed individuated physiognomies, stylized but consistently drawn and recognizable portraits of popular actors. Shôkôsai was perhaps a bit more angular in his drawing of the face. The most obvious difference between master and pupil lay in Shôkôsai's more wide-ranging compositional choices. While Ryûkôsai worked almost exclusively with full-figure hosoban compositions in his single-sheet prints (some of his paintings do, however, include bust portraits, or ôkubi-e), Shôkôsai worked in full-figure, half-length, and bust portrait single-sheet hosoban and chûban. Shôkôsai's 'okubi-e' were particularly innovative for the Osaka region and probably were important to the development of the later and better known bust portraits in the ôban-format during the second and third periods of Osaka printmaking.

Shokosai Detail The print illustrated at the top right is a rare example of a surimono (privately issued print) from the early period of Osaka printmaking and the only one known by Shôkôsai. Dated circa late 1790s, its proportions (200 x 282 mm) and horizontal orientation shelter it somewhat from the direct influence of the Katsukawa vertical hosoban style and even from that of Ryûkôsai, which lends this particular surimono the stamp of originality. Shôkôsai depicted the actors Arashi Sangorô II (1732-1803) on the right and Yoshizawa Iroha I (later called Ayame V; 1754-1810) on the left in an unidentified play. Both actors were highly ranked and widely popular among theater fans. They are at Miho Bay with Mt. Fuji in the distance, where they are engaged in a dance interlude (shosagoto). The occasion for this surimono is unknown — perhaps it was commissioned by fans of the actors. Another possibility is that it was commissioned for the retirement of Sangorô II, which took place in 1797. The first poem speaks of the morning mist at Miho, the second of a lover waiting for a companion, and the third of a sad parting between lovers at dawn. The delicacy of the printing and the full-color rendition of the actors contrast strongly with the lightly printed background, a precursor to later, more dramatic treatments of heavily printed ukiyo-e style figures set against more impressionistic, Shijô-inspired backgrounds. Thus Shôkôsai seems to have been an experimenter in compositional forms and printing styles that set the stage for later Osaka artists. © 1999-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Fiorillo, John: "A rare surimono by Shôkôsai and its place among early Osaka actor portraits," in: Andon, no. 57, 1997, pp. 21-37.
  • Keyes, Roger and Mizushima, Keiko: The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.
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