Munehiro, The Five Virtues - Nakamura Tomotaro as Yorikane

Hasegawa Munehiro (active 1848 - 1867) The Five Virtues: Nakamura Tomotaro as Yorikane, 1850’s. Chuban.

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Little is known of Munehiro - he was an Osaka artist, a pupil of Hasegawa Sadanobu (from whom he took his first name) and he produced a small number of single and multi-sheet theatre prints. It is sometimes thought that he was in the circle of Hirosada but this is unproven. Despite his scarcity, he was a gifted artist and recent research suggests that many of the Osaka artist-printmakers were amateur enthusiasts… tremendously gifted, but men whose occupations in trade precluded careers in the theatre. These coterie artists are dim lamps in the history of Japanese art, principally because their enthusiasm was sometimes outside the legal and moral framework of the times… they deliberately kept themselves hidden.

This lovely, deluxe print is a mitate; a puzzle picture where the ostensible subject stands in for another thing or concept. In this case (and this all about the harsh moral reforms of the 1840’s) the ostensible subject is moral virtue… the print is one of a short series, each illustrating  the five moral virtues: courtesy, wisdom, fidelity, decorum and, in this piece, benevolence. The kanji for benevolence is lusciously illustrated in bronze and red in the top left corner. The series signifies the deception that was required by artists and publishers to show theatre subjects which were banned under the legislation.

The REAL subject (much more entertaining), is the actor Nakamura Tomotaro as Ashikaga Yorikane. He waits by a palanquin, symbolic of the play Meiboku Sendai Hagi  in which Yorikane defends his Lord and his young son against assassination by the kabuki villain, Nikki Danjo.  One night, a group of assassins on Danjo's payroll await Yorikane on his way home from his lover, Takao. When his palanquin approaches Hanamizu Bridge, they leap out and stab wildly at the palanquin. They are surprised to find no body inside… Yorikane has slipped out of the opposite side and is watching the confusion of his would-be murderers with amusement. Yorikane then easily defeats his assailants with his superior fighting skills.

This is a very lovely deluxe chuban theatre print by a rare artist. What relics these pieces are.. the treasured icons of sophisticated poets and dramatists, objects to be passed around at night under lantern light, murmured over and slipped away in albums quietly concealed. It has survived remarkably well. The surface is rich in metallic inks, now subtly and beautifully oxidised. The gesture is adoringly drawn… a portrait of a chivalric ideal. How well the perspective of the palanquin breaks the deep midnight blue of the background.

Colour, condition and impression are all fine. A lovely, thoughtful piece.

19.5 x 26 cm.