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Utamaro print showing


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Katsukawa Shunchô (勝川春湖)


Shuncho hana-ogi oban Katsukawa Shunchô (勝川春湖), active circa 1781(?) to 1801(?), first trained with Katsukawa Shunshô. His common name was Kichizaemon and he used a large number of (art names: 號) in addition to "Shunchô" in his paintings, including Chûrin, Chûrinsha, Sankô, Shien, Tansei, Tanseidô, Tôshien, and Yûshidô. In later years he also studied with Kubo Shunman (1757-1820), signing as Kichisadô Shunchô. He sometimes used a seal on his paintings reading "Sankô" (三江).

Despite his connection with the Katsukawa school, Shunchô designed very few yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵), whether in the preferred Katsukawa hosoban format (narrow-prints: 細判) or the more imposing ôban ("large-print": 大判) format. Instead, for his entire career, Shunchô focused on bijinga (beautiful women prints: 美人画) in a style much influenced by Torii Kiyonaga, excelling notably in the hashira-e (pillar print: 柱絵) format and triptychs in ôban format. He was also a fine painter of bijinga (about 20 are known) and produced illustrations for kyôkabon (playful-verse books: 狂歌本) and kibyôshi (humorous or satirical popular literature: 黄表紙), as well as many shunga (erotica: 春画) prints, again reminiscent of Kiyonaga.

Shunchô's design on the right, published by Tsuruya Kiemon circa 1793-94, is one of his rare ôban ôkubi-e ("large-head" prints in large format). It depicts the celebrated, high-ranking courtesan Hanaôgi IV (花扇 act. c. 1787-97) of the Ôgiya (扇屋) brothel in the Yoshiwara (葭原 later 吉原). Considered one of the great beauties during the so-called "golden age of ukiyo-e," Hanaôgi IV was portrayed in many prints by the leading artists of the period. On one such print by Kikugawa Utamaro (published by Tsutaya Jûsaburô), there is a poem that reads: Noserarete miru yû gao no Hanaôgi hito no kokoro ni aki no kozareba ("Attracted by her / face in the evening, / like a gourd flower in autumn, / no one can ever weary / of Hanaôgi’s beauty"). [Signed by Yanagihara Mukai; Trans. John T. Carpenter, MET-NY).

Hanaôgi's face is an idealized rendering of her physiognomy. Bijinga rarely if ever presented faithful nigao (facial likenesses: 似顔) or nise (resemblances: 似) as did the actor portraits of the Katsukawa school. Rather, identification and individual beauty was left to other attributes or iki (stylish refinement: 粋 or 粹), including form or figure, clothing, personal crests, hairstyle, posture, gesture, and expression. The Ôgiya brothel was known for educating its courtesans in the ways of sophisticated discourse with the wealthiest and most educated clients. Hanaôgi was trained, for example, in Chinese poetry and literary classics. Indeed, on a painting signed "Shien Shunchô" in the Weston collection (see Katz ref. below), a well-known poem by the Chinese poet Li Mengyang (1472-1530) is signed (purportedly) by Hanaôgi, a skill for which she was admired by the connoisseurs of the floating world. Whether she actually brushed the poem on the painting has not been definitively confirmed, but its presence signifies that the patron commissioning the work wanted an explicit connection with the celebrated courtesan.

Shuncho degatari Shuncho shibaraku
Shunchô: Degatari-zu, 11/1787 Shunchô: Monnosuke II in Shibaraku scene, 11/1790

In the genre of yakusha-e, Shunchô produced both hosoban and ôban portraits. On the left above, Shunchô designed a degatari-zu ("pictures of narrators' appearance": 出語り図), a type of actor print introduced by Kiyonaga [degatari]. Before the late eighteenth century, musicians and chanters sat out of view from the audience, but Kiyonaga's degatari-zu portrayed scenes in a large series in which the chanters and the musicians are visible on the tokodai (the raised musician's dais) as they recited or chanted along with jôruri music (various styles of musical narrative chanting and singing used to accompany the action on the puppet and kabuki stages). Here, Shunchô portrayed Ichikawa Komazô III (市川高麗蔵) as Gorokichi (放鳥五郎吉), Segawa Kikunojô III (瀬川菊之丞) as Yamamoto no Osugi (駕舁山本のおすぎ), and Iwai Hanshirô IV(岩井半四郎) as Yamakage no Omatsu (駕舁山かげのおまつ), with the chanters Tokiwazu Mojitayû (常磐津文字太夫) and Tokiwazu Mikitayû (常磐津造酒太夫), and the accompanist Tobaya Richô (鳥羽屋里長). The performance was given at the Kiri-za (桐座) in 11/1787 for Haru matsu ya tani no morogoe (春待谷諸声), the second part of the kaomise (season-opening kabuki production: 顔見世) for Sanga no shô haru no hanayome (三庄睦花娵).

Shunchô also produced hosoban in the Katsukawa manner. In the print above right, Ichikawa Monnosuke II (市川門之助) performs as Shinozuka Iga no kami (篠塚伊賀守) in Shibaraku ("Wait a moment!": 暫). This was included as part of the production for Iwao no hana mine no kusunoki (巌花峰野楠) at the Ichimura-za (市村座) in 11/1790. Shibaraku was a showpiece scene performed in kabuki kaomise ("face-showing": 顔見世), typical of the aragoto ("rough stuff": 荒事) style of playwriting and acting. Shibaraku was created by Ichikawa Danjûrô I around 1697 and became obligatory in Edo kabuki's season-opening performances by the early eighteenth century. A scene of roughly 50 minutes, Shibaraku is not a play unto itself, but a short drama inserted during interludes or between full plays. The hero's name varied in the early years according to the production, but today's version dates from 1895 when Ichikawa Danjûrô IX performed as Kamakura Gongorô Kagemasa (鎌倉権五郎景政). In addition to the bravura style of acting the role, the costume is also memorable. The set of clothing (suô) consists of an outer garment (uwagi) with huge, wide-open sleeves and long trailing trousers (naga-bakama), made from rough cotton cloth in a kaki or kakishibu (reddish-brown or persimmon) color meant to resemble the astringent juice pressed from the skins of Japanese persimmon. The coloration is meant to convey colossal strength, as does the wildly exaggerated proportions of the sleeves patterned with the Ichikawa clan’s mimasu (three rice-measures: 三舛) crests.

Shuncho hagidera triptych
Shunchô: Picnic in autumn at the Hagidera (Bush-clover Temple), c. 1787-92

Shunchô produced much of his best work in the ôban triptych format, as in the example above from circa 1787-1792 in which nine young women are shown picnicking in autumn on the grounds of the Hagidera (Bush-clover Temple: 萩寺) in Edo. The temple grounds were famous for many varieties of bush clover (Lespedeza japonica), a symbolic flower mentioned innumerable times in Japanese poetry and literature, appearing, for example, over 100 times in the oldest extant collection of waka poetry, the Man'yôshû (Collection of ten thousand leaves: 万葉集) from the Nara period (710 CE to 794 CE). Hagi, the best known of the aki no nanakusa (seven grasses of autumn: 秋七草), have throughout many centuries of poetic discourse been closely associated with the ephemerality of life. Perhaps Shunchô's joyful beauties were meant to represent the "floating world's" antidote to the brevity of life — enjoyment of simple pleasures, day by day.

Shunchô was especially adept at varying the placement, size, postures, and gestures of generously populated triptychs, thereby avoiding a muddled crowd of figures by syncopating the rhythms of their forms. In this respect he equaled or perhaps even surpassed the artist he most emulated, Torii Kiyonaga. Moreover, the lovely range and balance of colors is an attribute of Shunchô's oeuvre that is often praised, although we cannot be certain how much Shunchô contributed to the selection of colors for his prints (the assumption has been that Shunchô would have indicated colors on monochrome proof sheets for the printers to follow).

Shuncho imoseyama triptych
Shunchô: Imaginary view of the Yoshino River scene in the kabuki play Imoseyama, c. late 1780s

The triptych immediately above has been described as Mitate Imoseyama Yoshinogawa no bamen (Imaginary view of the Yoshino River scene in the play Imoseyama: 見立妹背山吉野川の場面), published by Izumi-ya Ichibei (Sen'ichi) circa late 1780s. The play in question would be Imoseyama onna teikin (Mt. Imo and Mt. Se — an exemplary tale of womanly virtue: 妹背山婦女庭訓), which premiered in 1771 as a puppet play (ningyô jôruri: 人形淨瑠璃) and was quickly staged for kabuki in 3/1771 at the Kitagawa no Shibai in Kyôto. A main thread in the plot involves two young lovers who are members of feuding families. Reaching an impasse, the Romeo-and-Juliet lovers commit suicide. On the left sheet one can see the young man Kogonosuke on the far river bank gazing at his lover Hinadori who is standing on the veranda at the back of the middle sheet. The tale is linked with a contemporary motif of a palatial mansion whose occupants are readying thhemselves for entertaining. The young girl in the center sheet is holds a bowl of clam-shells painted with designs, which will be used to play kai awase (shell matching game: 貝合). The woman on the left sheet wearing a black kimono is carrying a flower arrangement to decorate a tokonoma (alcove: 床の間). All the women are dressed in the latest fashions.

Shuncho xxxxxxxxShuncho mother & boyAnother format that Shunchô seemed to enjoy exploring (with great success) was the hashira-e (pillar-print: 柱絵), which he did in more than 50 designs. On the left, a young woman, probably a housewife, stands behind a fishmonger who is preparing the morning's catch. Before them is a wooden basin with a radish and a knife. This scene appears to depict the hatsu-gatsuo (first bonito of the season: 初鰹). Traditionally, the Japanese place a high value on hatsu-mono (first foods), the earliest fruits, vegetables, or fish of a particular season. The first bonito was the most prized of all and commanded a high price.

On the right is an example of how Shunchô, while following the convention of truncating figures and contextual elements, manages to pack enough narrative detail within the tall, narrow, and rather constraining format for the viewer to make sense of the subject. Here, a young mother and her boy, who belong to the chônin (merchant or town-persons: 町人) class, are walking about in summer. He spies a cicada on a tree branch and points at his discovery while his mother gazes up as well. She carries a ubiquitous summertime accessory — an ôgi (folding fan: 扇) — while he holds another seasonal favorite for keeping cool, a kasa (umbrella or parasol: 傘 or 伞). Hashira-e were formed by pasting two narrow sheets together of unequal heights; the join can be easily seen here running across the boy's chest.

The public's fascination with certain beauties of the teahouses created a strong market for nishiki-e (full-color prints: 錦絵) portraying these famous figures. Celebrity sold well, then as now. Among the beautiful and famous, Takashima-ya Ohisa (高島屋のおひさ) was a frequent subject for ukiyo-e artists. She was the eldest daughter of Takashima Chôbei, the owner of a mizujaya (roadside teahouse: 水茶屋) in which Ohisa worked attracting customers. The Takashima teahouse, famous for its rice crackers, was located in the Ryôgoku (両国) district in Sumida, Edo. Around 1792-94, Shunchô designed an ôban ôkubi-e of Ohisa applying rouge to her lips (see image below left). As in many of such "portraits" by other artists, Kitagawa Utamaro preeminent among them, the appeal resides both in the design's specificity and symbolism. The viewer is given a voyeuristic glimpse into a private moment with Ohisa's visage reflected in a mirror. The zooming in on the face also offers an imagined intimacy with the young beauty. Even so, there is as well an iconic aspect to such portraits, as the idealized face represents a "mirror" (model) of beauty for all other women to emulate.

In an unusual subject for Shunchô, the yokozuna (横綱) or champion sumô wrestler Tanikaze Kajinosuke (谷風梶之助 1750-96) is shown with another great beauty of the age, the teahouse waitress Naniwa-ya Okita (難波屋の店先). The Naniwa-ya, a mizujaya, was located near the Zuijin Gate on the east side of the Asakusa-jinja (Asakusa Temple: 浅草神社) in Edo. In Shunchô's double portrait, much of the interest is generated by the discrepancy between Tanikaze's enormous head and true nigao (facial likeness: 似顔) and Okita's idealized facial typology, a variant of a "beauty and the beast" portrait. Note that both icons of beauty, Ohisa and Okita, in keeping with the latest fashions, wear an elaborate version of the shimada (島田) hairstyle (a type of chignon) called tôrôbin shimada (lantern-locks shimada: 灯籠鬢島田), which became popular in the late 18th century and was characterized by wide wings at the sides. Compare this hairstyle with the yoko-hyôgo (横兵庫) worn by the elite courtesan Hanaôgi IV at the top of this page. Closely associated only with the highest-ranking courtesans of the Yoshiwara, the yoko-hyôgo, when viewed from the back, was said to resemble a butterfly wings.

Shuncho ohisa Shuncho okita_tanikaze
Shunchô: Teahouse waitress Takashima Ohisa
applying rouge, (ôban), c. 1792-94
Shunchô: Teahouse waitress Naniwa-ya Okita and
wrestler Tanikaze Kajinosuke, (ôban), c. 1792-94

Shunchô also designed half-length portraits of these same two celebrated teahouse waitresses. On the left below, Naniwa-ya Okita is shown serving a cup of tea to a customer who is outside the image frame. Although she is the sole focus of the design, the iconographic impact is attenuated when compared to the ôkubi-e portrait illustrated at the top of this page for the courtesan Hanaôgi IV). Here, Okita is presented within a more down-to-earth, routine context. On her outer robe with a key-fret pattern are two visible crests associated with her, the kiri (paulownia: 桐). Takashima-ya Ohisa (below right) holds an uchiwa (non-folding fan: 團扇 or 団扇) to her face in a coquettish gesture. The fan bears her three-leaf kashiwa-mon (oak crest: 柏紋). Although neither of the portraits of teahouse waitresses is an actual likeness, Shunchô followed the examples of Kitagawa Utamaro in rendering the faces slightly differently and consistently for each beauty. Comparison of his drawings of Okita (above and below) reveal a very slight aquiline nose, whereas Ohisa has a very slight concave nose. We find the same sort of treatments in the idealized faces of these same beauties in Utamaro's designs, for example, in his triple portrait Tôji san bijin (Three beauties of the present day: 当時三美人) wherein Okita's nose is a bit more aquiline. Ohisa's is slightly concave, and a third beauty — a famous geisha of the Tamamura-ya in the Yoshiwara pleasure district named Tomimoto Toyohina (富本豊雛) — is distinguished by her virtually straight nose.

Shuncho okita serving tea Shuncho ohisa with fan
Shunchô: Teahouse waitress Naniwa-ya Okita
serving tea, (ôban), c. 1792-94
Shunchô: Teahouse waitress Takashima-ya Ohisa
holding a fan, (ôban), c. 1792-94

Katsukawa Shunchô might not have been an innovative artist, but at his best he equaled or improved upon existing modes of design. Inevitable comparisons arise with the greater names in ukiyo-e specializing in bijinga, such as Kiyonaga and Utamaro, yet Shunchô's works occasionally reached the same heights. Moreover, as has already been mentioned, he seemed unmatched in the well-balanced dispersal of figures across triptychs, exhibiting a fine-tuned compositional sense in arraying a wide variety of poses and gestures, and rendering diversely patterned clothing. His few ôkubi-e also suggest that he would have accomplished more in that mode had he explored it in greater depth. © 2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Clark, Timothy: Ukiyo-e Paintings in the British Museum. London: British Museum Press, 1992, pp. 112-113.
  • Hillier, Jack: "Shunchô: The Triptych and the Pillar Print," in: The Japanese Print: A New Approach. Rutland/Tokyo: Tuttle, 1960, pp. 80-93.
  • Katz, Janice: "Beauty and Identity in Katsukawa' Shunchô's Standing Courtesan," in: Katz and Hatayama, eds.) Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection. Art Institute of Chicago, 2018, pp. 44-57 and 165.
  • Smith, Henry: "Actor Prints: Shunshô, Bunchô, and the Katsukawa School," in: The Actor's Image, Ueda & Clark, 1995, pp. 20-22.
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