Kunisada, 36 Imaginary Poets - Nakamura Utaemon III as Toneri Umeomaru

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) Thirty-six Imaginary Poets: Nakamura Utaemon III as Toneri Umeomaru, 1852. Oban.

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1852 was a prolific year for Kunisada; he was in great demand and his output of new designs was prodigious in every way. It is easy to pass over his enormous achievement, this distinctive and unmistakable genre portrait style that he made his own. He became adept at marrying travel scenes from the great Japanese highways - The Kisokaido and the Tokaido Roads - with portraits of actors, themselves cast as characters from history. The composition was an expedient work-around for strict censorship in the 1840’s but it soon became a style of its own. By 1852 prohibitions on actor portraits were being relaxed but the puzzle picture nature of these mitate had found popularity with the audiences.

Hence in this print, which is simply gorgeous, we see one of the great actors of the day, Nakamura Utaemon III playing the role of Toneri Umeomaru. Umeomaru’s character… existence, you might say, was conceived when the authors were working on a play about the renowned scholar and calligrapher Sugawara no Michizane (845 - 903) and his quarrels with the Emperor and subsequent banishment. A great stir was caused in Osaka by the birth of triplets.  It was therefore decided to make use of triplets in the new production and thus it was that Matsuomaru, Umeomaru and Sakuramaru came into being.

For the purpose of the story, the triplets are the sons of Sugawara's retainer, Shiratayu. When they were born, Sugawara stood sponsor to all three and named them after the trees he loved best, Matsu (Pine), Ume (Plum) and Sakura (Cherry) In this fine print, Kunisada is commemorating the drama Akegarasu Hana no Nureginu. Utaemon occupies the foreground, carrying a large basket; the plum blossom is seen in the background. He wears the kudamori make up of the arragato style of acting… rough and aggressive. Curiously the character in this and subsequent depictions by say, Toshihide also show the makeup on the arms and hands in the manner of a jointed puppet… I cannot say why.

The series is highly regarded, very collectible and rightly seen as one of his best from this prolific year. The print is full size; colour, condition and impression are all fine. Unbacked. There are copies of this print in the British Museum, London.

Published by Iseya Kanekichi.

36 x 24 cm.