Katsukawa Shunsho (勝川春章 1726-93), whose real name was Katsumiyagawa Yûsuke, founded the Katsukawa school of painting and printmaking in Edo. He studied with the ukiyo-e painter and print designer Miyagawa Shunsui (宮川春水 act. 1740s-60s), son and student of the ukiyo-e-style painter Miyagawa Chôshun (宮川長春 1683-1753), both equally notable artists. Although Shunshô (along with Ippitsusai Bunchô, 一筆齋文調 act. c. 1755-1790) is best known for introducing a new form of facial realism or stylized physiognomy to yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者) in Edo, his paintings of bijinga (images of beautiful women: 美人画), while less famous, are considered to be among the best from the second half of the 18th century. Many of his prints, from the first known designs of 1764 until at least the end of 1786, have a seal in the shape of a jar surrounding the character for hayashi ("forest": 林), which earned him the nickname "Tsubo" ("jar": 壸); see the lower right of the present example. All told, Katsukawa Shunshô has long been considered an eminent ukiyo-e artist whose works rank among the very best eighteenth-century prints, paintings, and illustrated books.
Segawa Kikunojô III (三代目 瀬川菊之烝 1751-1810) was a premiere onnagata ("woman's manner": 女方 or 女形), an actor who performed in female roles. He excelled in waka-onnagata (young maiden or princess roles: 若女方) and in keisei-mono (courtesan plays: 傾城物), and by 1782 he was considered the finest onnagata in Edo. In the first lunar month of 1789, at the still-young age of 37, he was given the highly prestigious ranking in the yakusha hyôbanki (actor critiques: 役者評判記) of goku-jô-jô-kichi (extreme - superior - superior - excellent: 極上上吉). As a dancer, he was outstanding in dôjôji-mono (Maiden at Dôjô Temple dances: 娘道成寺) and shakkyô-mono (lion or "stone bridge" dances: 石橋物). He was so successful that he became quite wealthy (his yearly salary in the 11th lunar month of 1790 was 1,850 ryô, an extravagant sum), but, unlike many actors, he was economical, saving his earnings and investing in houses and land in Edo and Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto). His wealth was the topic of unabated gossip among theater fans wherever he performed.
Kikunojô III is shown in one of the conventional kata ("forms": 型) used to interpret and enact a character on stage. Here, the curving stance and the lifting up of the long sleeve of the furisode ("swinging sleeve" kimono: 振袖) are intended to convey the feelings and attributes of a young, unmarried woman. The sleeve, in a manner of speaking, becomes an expressive "stage prop" as the actor moves it about during the scene. Kikunojô is shown before a backdrop of a river where hagi (bush clover: 萩) are growing, a plant with various associations in classical poetry and one that is often depicted in ukiyo-e prints and paintings.
We have accepted, provisionally, the attribution of the role and play (Iwakoshi of the Oiso-ya and Okazari kotobuki Soga, respectively), as cited in the Sotheby's catalog (ref. no. 4 below). Okazari kotobuki Soga (Grand decoration for the felicitous Soga: 大飾壽曾我), Kiri-za, Edo was one of many Soga monogatari (Tales of the Soga brothers: 曾我物語), chronicles about the attempted revenge taken by two brothers against the murderer of their father. In kabuki, Soga mono were and still are traditionally staged at the New Year, hence the word kotobuki ("long life" or "congratulations": 寿 or 壽) in the play title. In regard to the present design, it is often quite challenging to identify Katsukawa prints when all one has of a definitive nature is the actor's crest and stylized face, and a generic sort of scene and costume. This sheet was likely part of a polyptych, possibly a diptych.
Individual designs by the Katsukawa artists most often survive as single sheets separated from polyptychs and, if not unique, in very small numbers of impressions. This is the case with our Shunshô hosoban, as we know of only one other impression, which is in the British Museum (no. 1915,0823,0.605.1-2). That impression is more faded and shows block wear not present on ours, indicating it was a later lifetime printing from the original blocks. Our example has good color and is in very good condition for a print of this period. All told, this Shunshô design is a most desirable rarity.
This impression comes from the Professor Helmutt Kühne (1911-1989) collection, Germany, notable for its extensive holdings of yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵), especially those by artists of the Katsukawa and Utagawa schools. The collection of more than 540 lots was dispersed at auction in 1993 (see Sotheby's reference below).
- British Museum, no. 1915,0823,0.605.1-2.
- Clark, Tim and Ueda, Osamu: The Actor's Image: Print Makers of the Katsukawa School. Art Institute of Chicago, 1994.
- Gookin, Frederick: A Master Artist of Old Japan, Katsukawa Shunsho, 1726-1793: A Review of His Life and Works. Winnetka, IL, June 10, 1931. Photocopy of unpublished typescript.
- Sotheby's: Kabuki in Japanese Prints from the Collection of the Late Prof. H.R.W. Kühne. London, June 11, 1993 (auction sale catalog), p. 36, lot no. 76.