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VJP title Utamaro print showing



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Katsukawa Shunshô (c. 1726-93)


Shunsho sangoro Shunsho kanji Katsukawa Shunshô is celebrated for his portraits of actors. He is also much admired for some superb paintings. Very little of Shunshô's biography is known — his date of birth is uncertain, and his year of death is often reported inaccurately as 1792 (he died, in fact, on the 8th day of the 12th month in Kansei, a date on the lunar calendar that corresponds to January 19, 1793 on the Western calendar).

Shunshô studied with the ukiyo-e printmaker and painter Miyagawa Shunsui (????, active c. 1740s–1760s), and early on, he sometimes signed as "Miyagawa Shunshô." He also studied painting with Kô Sûkoku (1730-1804), a talented Edo-based artist whose style developed from both Kanô school painting and ukiyo-e.

Today we acknowledge not only Shunshô's important prints and paintings, but also his pupils (Shunkô, Shunei, Shunjô, Shunzan, Shundô, and Shuntei). Even the great Hokusai (1760-1849) began in Shunshô's studio (signing as Shunrô) in 1779, although he changed his name to Sôri in late 1794 and left the Katsukawa studio in 1795, quickly developing his own vivid style of ukiyo-e design.

Shunshô revitalized actor portraiture in the 1760s after the gradual weakening of the once dominant Torii school during the preceding quarter century. One important contribution was his widely influential nise-e ("likeness painting") or nigao ("likenesses"), which were stylized but otherwisse accurate facial likenesses of actors. These introducd a greater measure of realism and individuation into ukiyo-e actor portraits. Not only his own pupils but artists from other studios followed suit in developing actors' nigao, particularly print designers of the Utagawa school.

The image on the right illustrates a typical design by Shunshô in the hosoban format circa late 1770s-mid 1780s. It depicts the actor Arashi Sangorô II (1732-1803) in an unidentified role. In Shunshô's composition Sangorô, recognizable by both his individuated physiognomy and his actor's crest below his right sleeve, is standing as he strikes a mie, his "display" demonstrating the restrained but sinewy athleticism and resolute posturing that we commonly associate with Shunshô's actor portraits.

Shunshô was a versatile artist — his masterful paintings of domestic scenes and beautiful women confirm that he was not limited to the genre of actor portraits. Some of his depictions of sumo wrestlers are among the finest ever created.

Early in his career he sometimes worked in a style reminiscent of Harunobu. In 1771 he created 48 koban (a small format in a variety of sizes, in this case half an aiban sheet) designs based on the classic Ise monogatari ("Tales of Ise"), an anonymous tenth-century collection of 143 brief episodes or tales serving as fictional headnotes to 209 poems. Although Ise subjects had appeared earlier in ukiyo-e productions as black and white prints or book illustrations, Shunshô appears to have been the first to use the full-color print process (nicknamed nishiki-e, or "brocade prints") for Ise subjects when he provided designs for the publisher Urokogataya Magobei.

Shunsho IseThe first part of the series was titled Fûryû nishiki Ise monogatari nijûyo mai ("The Tales of Ise in Fashionable Brocade on 24 Sheets"). The designs were cut two to an aiban-size block and then each sheet was cut in half into two single designs. All but one design was signed Shunshô ga with a special form of the character ga ("ta" within a square box).

The publishing history remains somewhat obscure, but apparently a set of 24 designs was issued circa 1771, both as single sheets and bound together in albums. Then a second set of 24 additional designs was issued the following year, but these are not commonly found today, possibly because of the loss of the prints and woodblocks in a widespread fire that struck Edo in 2/1772, damaging the publisher's workshop. Also, the series may not have been a financial success, which could have contributed to the rarity of the second group.

Artistically both Ise sets have proven to be important as early indicators of Shunshô's skills in areas other than actor portraiture. In many of these classical Ise subjects Shunshô introduced strong narrative elements that distinguish his work from the more atmospheric productions of Harunobu.

The image on the immediate right is an example from the rare second set of Ise subjects. It is considered one of the best designs from either group. The print includes the kana character for 'se' within a circle (each of the 48 designs in the Ise series has one of the iroha or Japanese syllabary characters) and a poem from Episode 56 of the Ise monogatari. Episode 56 contains only a brief headnote, which says that a man was tortured by love, his suffering becoming unendurable and compelling him to express his feelings in the poem (included at the top of the print within the cusped cloud). It also says that as night approaches, the dew (which is a conventional poetic metaphor for tears) clings to his sleeve as it might to the thatched roof of a simple hut.

The style appears to be a blend of Sukenobu, Suzuki Harunobu, classical Tosa school album paintings, and Shunshô himself, and the result is charming. A young court woman admires the dew on autumn grasses, a traditional subject with classical associations. The scene also evokes the Ise poem. Displaying an attractive range of colors (although here the purple of the outer robe is slightly faded), the print confirms that Shunshô and his printers were skilled colorists. The grasses and flowers are delicately rendered, as are the woman's hand and hair. The drawing of the face is Shunshô's own, and although it may remind us of Harunobu, Shunshô's approach to feminine physiognomy seems a bit earthier by comparison.© 1999-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Asano, Shûgô: "Shunshô's 'Fûryû nishiki-e Ise monogatari (Tales of Ise), Introduction of Material," in Ukiyo-e Geijutsu, vol. 96 (1988), pp. 32-44.
  • Clark, Tim: "Shunshô's 'Fûryû nishiki-e Ise monogatari (Tales of Ise), Part Two," in Ukiyo-e Geijutsu, vol. 100 (1991), pp. 72-81.
  • Clark, Tim and Ueda, Osamu: The Actor's Image. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, pp. 184-191.
  • McCullough, Helen Craig: Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-Century Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968.
  • Smith, Henry: "Actor Prints: Shunshô, Bunchô, and the Katsukawa School," in: The Actor's Image, Ueda & Clark, 1995, pp. 20-2.
  • Tsuchihashi, P.: Japanese Chronological Tables from 601 to 1872. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1952, p. 102.
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