Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Tadaemon

Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864) Nakamura Utaemon IV as Tadaemon, 1850. Deluxe Chuban.

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A quite stunning little portrait head of the kabuki actor Nakamura Utaemon IV. Utaemon was a superstar kabuki actor whose popularity in Osaka was tremendous. Hirosada produced a great number of celebratory portrait busts such as this one for actual and assumed roles during his great productive period of 1849/1850. Roger Keyes suggests that Hirosada designed up to two hundred of these bust portraits of various actors in this short period. Some are well annotated, others like this print, lack much written detail. Actor portraits and woodblock prints in general were still the subject of highly restrictive censorship in Japan generally, but most especially in Osaka during the 1840’s.

The Osaka portrait genre - exquisite, considered portraiture with a static and painful emotive content on the smaller, chuban format - was made popular by the artist Sadamasu. Sadamasu was a wealthy artist who was fully involved (like Hirosada) with the design and the production of woodblock prints. His and Hirosada’s development of the genre remains one of the truly outstanding contributions to psychological portraiture anywhere in the world in recent times. I have said before that as studies of the human condition these miniature masterpieces are comparable to Holbein's studies of the English Renaissance.

This is a fine and thoughtful portrait of Utaemon IV. The gorgeous autumnal colours lend the brooding portrait a stillness and quietude that is reinforced by the pose… that steady, contemplative smoking of the pipe in the right hand. The bulky figure is wrapped in a quilted and checked coat that billows around him and yet also seems to ensnare the figure. The print itself is highlighted with gold inks in the threads of the coat and silver metallics in the pipe stem.

Colour, condition and impression are all fine. It is really ridiculous that these masterpieces should be so undervalued; the price reflects the idiocy of the market and not the brilliance of this rare artwork. Only one other example of this print is known to exist.