Katsukawa SHUNSHO and his Pupils - SHARAKU.

ON the advent of the polychrome period, theatrical prints such as Harunobu and his school rejected with scorn became the special province of the Katsukawa school virtually founded by Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1793), himself a pupil of a painter Miyagawa Shunsui, who changed his artistic name from Miyagawa to Katsukawa.

In Shunsho and his pupils the representation of actors and theatrical subjects reached its highest level in the polychrome print, a level only maintained for a short period by the Utagawa school in the early work of Toyokuni and his pupil Kunimasa.

Shunsho abandoned the traditions of his master and invaded what had till then been the special province of the Torii school, a subject but little allied to the school in which he received his training, whose forte was the portrayal of elaborately-attired women.

Shunsho thus revived the theatrical print, which the popular innovations of Harunobu and his followers had caused to fall out of fashion almost to the point of extinction. Even the Torii school at this period had dropped actor-portraiture to a considerable extent, while its greatest master, Kiyonaga, was almost exclusively a painter of women.

As proof of the hold which the fashion set by Harunobu and continued by Kiyonaga had on the popular taste, we find certain pupils of Shunsho's school, such as Shuncho and Shunzan, to mention two of the best known, following in the steps of Kiyonaga rather than in those of their instructor.


In his particular subject of actor-portraiture, Shunsho became supreme amongst his contemporaries. Almost all of his prints are in hoso-ye form, which were originally printed three-on-a-block and afterwards divided. An undivided hoso-ye print is a great rarity, while complete, though cut, they are almost as rare. Full-size prints by Shunsho are very uncommon.

His designs are remarkable for their admirable decorative effect, through which they appeal to those who would otherwise see little beauty in his ferocious faces and tense attitudes, and particularly in his use of masses of black as a contrast. Coupled with an admirable colour-scheme is an intense rendering of dramatic emotion, though in dignified repose his figures are equally as effective.

In his treatment of actors in women's parts Shunsho is particularly happy ; their grace and stateliness is unmatched, and to find their equal one must go back to the queens of Greek tragedy.

These characteristics of Shunsho are well indicated in the illustrations at Plate 35 of two fine examples of his work. Illustration No. 1 is the actor Ichikawa Danjuro in character (perhaps that of Soga-no-Goro), and the other is that of an actor (unidentified) as a woman carrying a spear in a procession with its tufted covering over the blade. This print is signed with Shunsho's well-known jar seal, a device which he used on his early work when he lived with his publisher, Hayashi (or Iseri), whose monogram appears on it. It is said that during the early days of his struggle on the road to fame, he was too poor to have a seal of his own, and being desirous of remaining anonymous till such time as he was sure of success, borrowed that of his publisher.

In Shunsho and his pupils we find the theatrical and actor-print at its highest level during the polychrome period, a level which Toyokuni might have maintained had he not frittered away his undoubted talent in pandering to a public taste, which, after the death of Utamaro, was rapidly becoming decadent.

About the year 1785 Shunsho gave up print-designing and reverted to his original work of painting, which he continued till his death in 1793.


A distinguished follower of Shunsho, but originally trained in the aristocratic Kano school of painting, is Ippitsusai Buncho (w. 1765-1775), an artist of the samurai class. This fact accounts for a certain delicacy and refinement in his prints such as we see in those of Yeishi, another samurai turned print-designer. Buncho's prints are very uncommon, and are practically all in hoso-ye form. He particularly affected actors in the role of women, one of his best-known prints being a portrait of the actor Segawa Kikunojo, the foremost woman impersonator of the day.

Buncho collaborated with Shunsho in the production of a book, Fan-Portraits of Actors, which is considered one of the three most beautiful picture-books of Ukiyoye, the other two being A Mirror of the Beauties of the Green-Houses, by Shunsho and Shigemasa, and Beautiful Women of the Yoshiwara, by Kitao Masanobu, to which we have already referred. Single sheets from all these books are sometimes met with as separate prints.

Buncho only worked for about ten years which accounts for the scarcity of his prints to-day, coupled with the fact that much of this short period was spent in dissipation, until he was induced by his fellow-samurai to mend his ways and abjure his connection with the common theatre.


SHUNYEI (1768-1819) was, perhaps, the leading pupil of Shunsho's studio who carried on the traditions of the Katsukawa school, and on the retirement of the latter, became one of the most prominent artists of Ukiyoye. He entered Shunsho's studio while still a boy, and himself became eventually the master of a large and flourishing school. Besides his actor-portraits he is noted for his representations of wrestlers, a subject few artists attempted, and of which he and Shunsho were the chief exponents. A fine wrestler-print by Shunyei is illustrated at Plate 36.

Shunyei was the equal of, and in the estimation of some, superior to his master by reason of his fine, but very uncommon, large size, full-length portraits and head-studies after the style of Sharaku, who is generally credited with being the originator of this type of portrait, though Shunyei has his supporters to this claim.

The great majority of Shunyei's prints, however, are in the hoso-ye shape with which the Katsukawa school is particularly associated ; a fine example by Shunyei is here illustrated at Plate 35 (No. 3), showing the actor Ichikawa Danjuro in character, holding up one end of a long paper banner on which is inscribed the crest of the Prince of Soma. Comparing his work with that of Shunsho, Shunyei's actors are more restrained and individualistic. Shunsho portrays the character in the which the actor plays his part; Shunyei gives us the individual himself. The Danjuro here portrayed was one of the line famous for a well-developed nose.


Equal with Shunyei amongst the pupils of Shunsho is Katsukawa SHUNKO (c. 1760-1827), who should not be confused with the other artist of this name, but written differently, a late pupil of Shunyei, who is known as Shunbeni, or Shunko II, beni being an alternative reading of the character for ko. Work by Shunbeni, however, is very rare. The very few prints by him that have come under observation have mostly been a combination of landscape or outdoor scenes and figure-studies like the example illustrated at Plate 2, page 38, though one actor-print by him has been noted. He worked during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Katsukawa Shunko also used ajar seal like that of his master, Shunsho, but smaller, from which he was nicknamed Ko-tsubo, or little-jar. A fine hoso-ye print by him is illustrated at Plate 35 (No. 4).

Though Shunko lived well into the nineteenth century, he ceased work after about 1785 owing, it is said, to his becoming paralysed in his right hand when about forty-five years old.

Pupils of Shunyei are Katsukawa Shuntei (1770-1820) and Katsukawa Shunsen (c. 1780-1830). The former was noted, like Utagawa Kuniyoshi, for his prints illustrative of history and legend, and for battle-scenes. He also designed actor-prints and portraits of wrestlers. He ceased work early in his career, however, owing it is said to ill-health, and his prints are in consequence not common.

Katsukawa SHUNSEN (w. 1800-1823) designed mostly figure-studies of women and landscapes, and was very fond of a pleasing colour-scheme of pale blue, apple-green, and rose-red. He appears to have designed very few actor-portraits ; out of twenty-one examples by him catalogued in the British Museum collection only two, both triptychs, are representations of actors. In a later chapter, however, will be found described and illustrated a good series of Chushingura scenes by him. During his lifetime he was better known for his book-illustrations than for his full-size prints. Towards the end of his career, about the year 1820, Shunsen changed his name to Shunko, being thus the third artist to use this signature. He, however, wrote the character for ko differently to the form used by either Katsukawa Shunko, pupil of Shunsho, or by the Shunko known also as Shunbeni. A print signed Shunsen changing to Shunko has been noted by the writer, a very uncommon signature.

At this period, the closing years of the eighteenth century, there came on the scene an artist who was destined to create a stir in the artistic and theatrical world of Yedo. This individual was none other than the great SHARAKU (w. 1790-1795), himself an actor of the aristocratic No drama in the service of the daimyo of Awa, turned print-designer. No other artist, not even Shunsho nor Toyokuni, took greater advantage of the characteristics of Japanese acting, nor portrayed dramatic emotion with such vehemence as did Sharaku. This vehemence brought down upon him the indignation of the theatre-loving population of Yedo, angry at seeing their favourites treated with so much malignity, so that he was obliged to cease work after but a very few years. His prints are consequently very rare, though considering his short working period, they are more numerous than might have been expected ; the total number known to exist is about a hundred and twenty, of which the Paris Exhibition catalogue of 1910 enumerates 105 examples.

Sharaku seems to have found more favour with contemporary artists than with the public ; both Shunyei and Toyokuni, for example, not to mention others, show his influence in their actor-portraits. He is also credited with the invention of the mica print in which powdered mica is applied to a coloured as distinct from a plain background. A fine series of Sharaku prints (twenty-seven in all, from the Satow collection) will be found in the British Museum collection.

Sharaku was a realist - too much so in the estimation of the public of Yedo - who drew without regard to anything but the truth and intensity of effect. The outlines of his drawings are exceedingly delicate, and his colour-schemes unique.

Besides the full-size bust portraits which brought him such notoriety, Sharaku has left some full-length studies in hoso-ye form which are even rarer than the former. A full triptych in this form, though divided, appeared at an exhibition of Japanese Prints in London in 1910, a particular rarity amongst the rare productions of Sharaku.

His two most famous prints are his portrait of the actor Matsumoto Koshiro with a pipe in one hand and a bandage round his head, facing to the right, in the character of Banzuin Chobei, the chief of the Otokodate who befriended Gompachi (vide Lord Redesdale's Tales for the story of Chobei). This print is generally known as the Man with a Pipe. The other companion print is known as the Man with a Fan, a portrait of the actor Onoye Matsusuke as a ronin, holding a closed fan in his right hand (illustrated at page 150, B.M. catalogue). The former of these two prints was reproduced by the artist Choki (Shiko) in a hashira-kake print of a teahouse girl holding a fan on which appears the Man with a Pipe, a remarkable tribute, probably unique, of the appreciation of one artist for the work of another. This print by Choki is illustrated at Plate XXIII of the Happer collection sale catalogue (Sotheby). Choki, however, repeats this compliment in another hashira-kake belonging to the same set by similarly reproducing a print by Toyokuni.

This is a full-length portrait of the tea-house waitress of Hira-no-ya, holding a cup and stand in her left hand, and in the other a split-bamboo fan on which is a portrait of the actor Ichikawa Danjuro ; unsigned.

The above instance is further proof that the powers of Sharaku were more appreciated by his fellow-artists, notwithstanding the fact that he was not of their class, than they were by the public.

There is also another Man with a Fan print by Sharaku besides that mentioned above, a bust portrait of the actor Sawamura Sojuro, looking to the left, and holding in his right hand a large open fan.