Yoshitoshi, Nakamura Shikan IV as Kato Kiyomasa

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) Nakamura Shikan IV as Kato Kiyomasa, c 1864. Oban.

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This striking print by Yoshitoshi is very rare indeed and given the towering status Yoshitoshi has attained over the last few years as the greatest Japanese artist of the Meiji period, it is highly desirable.

We cannot find any definitive record of the print. It is likely to come from a period in the early 1860’s when Yoshitoshi was starting out on his career. He was apprenticed to Kuniyoshi, whose seal  (the kiri or paulownia leaf) he co-opted in the 1860’s and is visible on this print. Yoshitoshi enjoyed a close relationship with Kuniyoshi who gave him his name. Kuniyoshi died in 1861 and Yoshitoshi was somewhat cast out of the circle of ukiyo-e artists; the death of his father in 1863 also contributed to his depressive illness. One can speculate that Yoshitoshi’s predilection for drawing heroes and warriors stems from these early powerful influences in his life.

As far as we can say, the print is an actor print of the type that Yoshitoshi produced for very little money when he had left his apprenticeship. This is not a warrior print, it is the portrait of  Nakamura Shikan IV (1831–1899), one of the most popular kabuki actors of the time. The character here is in reality, Kato Kiyomasa, also called Toranosuke, a Japanese daimyo. He was born in 1562 and was a relative of Hideyoshi, whose service Kato Kiyomasa entered upon reaching manhood, soon distinguishing himself in battle. Upon Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, Kiyomasa returned to Japan and aided Tokugawa Ieyasu and for his services, he received Kumamoto Castle as his provincial residence. He also brutally suppressed Christianity in Kyushu. In his later years, he tried to work as a mediator for the increasingly complicated relationship between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyori. In 1611, en route by sea to Kumamoto, he fell ill, and died shortly after his arrival, the rumour being that he was poisoned by Tokugawa Ieyasu. He became, under the thinly disguised name of Sato Masakiyo, the hero of many kabuki dramas, the most famous one being Hachijin Shugo no Honjo. In order to avoid the Shogunate censorship, the identity of all historical characters were disguised (more or less lightly).

So, a very rare print indeed that appears not to be held in any of the museum collections or online. It is a survivor of a probably short print run, from, at the time, a little known artist. Yoshitoshi shows the actor in characteristic mie, the eyes squinted in dramatic pose. This is a supremely confident piece of drawing from an emerging artist… bold, daring with strong patches of plain dark colour and intense mulberry decoration to the inner robes.

The impression is superb, as is the colour. The condition is good, the print is miraculously unbacked with minor repairs. Some surface soiling.

Signed: Ikkaisai Yoshitoshi.

35 x 25 cm.