Toyokuni II, A Beauty from the Azuri-e Set "Fine Modern Beauties"

Utagawa Toyokuni II (1777-1835) A beauty, from the Azuri-e set Tosei gonin bijo (Fine Modern Beauties) c. 1830, Oban.

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A fabulous print by any standards. Toyokuni II is a rare artist and this even rarer azuri-e (blue woodblock print) as far as I can tell remains unknown. The print speaks volumes about the tense relationships between the reigning artist of the day - Toyokuni I - and his colleagues, pupils, family and successors. Unfortunately Toyokuni II did not do so well out of the rivalries, which is a pity since as this print attests, he was an outstanding print artist. He was the pupil, son-in-law and adopted son of Toyokuni I, (founder of the Utagawa School in the early years of the 19th century). He used the name Toyoshige until 1826, the year after his teacher’s death, when he began signing his work Toyokuni. Kunisada, another (and some might say, more ambitious) student of Toyokuni I, did not recognise Toyoshige’s claim and declared himself “Toyokuni” and leader of the school. Toyoshige resumed signing his work “Toyoshige”. Kunisada eventually adopted the name Toyokuni III.

Azuri-e are highly sought after; the blue colour ink was imported from Europe in the 1820’s and became very fashionable for high quality prints during the decade. Toyokuni II is the most underrated of the Utagawa School, partly because of the tussle with Kunisada who succeeded him. He is nevertheless a terrifically gifted artist who utilised the brilliance of the Utagawa style… the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the 1820’s was still available and there is real excitement in the superb, geometric composition of the craft and the landing gear. Here we see an enviable beauty ready to disembark a pleasure boat. Behind her are the partly rotted timbers of a jetty and the stone embankment of the dock. Coiled rope identifies the prow and she holds on to the roof of the cabin; the perspective is distorted but you can make out the hanging rattan blind in front of her.

A rare series, this print unknown as is the precise number of prints. I know of one other: a beauty standing beside a circular window with wisteria and a swallow. The swallow on her kimono is a symbol of spring, the roll of tissue peeking out is a symbol of her trade of prostitution.

A fine print, impression and colour are excellent, the blue especially vivid, minor creases and some discolouration upper left in certain lights, but the condition over all is very good.

Published by Maruya Seijiro.

27 x 38 cm.