Toyokuni I, Matana Goro Kagehisa fighting Sanada no Yoichi Yoshitada

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Matana Goro Kagehisa fighting Sanada no Yoichi Yoshitada, c.1810’s. Oban.

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Toyokuni is best known for his mastery and dominance of the early kabuki theatre print in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. He is less well known for his contribution to musha-e or warrior prints. Toyokuni is curiously unsung; he was a contemporary of the revered 'classical' ukiyo-e artists but was key in making the transition to the popular art form that it became. He was the founder of the Utagawa school of artists and his proteges - Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and others - became the greatest Japanese artists of the nineteenth century. These musha-e of which this is a fine example, partly ignited the huge wave of popularity for single sheet warrior heroes that launched the career and lifetime success of his pupil Kuniyoshi just a few years later.

Toyokuni warrior prints such as this very rare indeed. This one is in good condition and in fact much better than most. The quality of the drawing is very fine indeed and the design and confidence of handling mark this out as an exceptional and prescient piece for the time. Only a handful (usually in poor condition) are known and we can find only one reference to this print in the literature. This is the second copy of this print we have had, and presents a little bit of an enigma. The earlier copy that we have contains the dark sky and a crescent moon but no censor seals on the right edge as in this copy. The colour here is very strong as is the impression and the print is in fine condition especially given its age.

This fight scene is an episode from a Japanese legend. The warriors are Matano Goro Kagehisa and Sanada no Yoichi Yoshitada who fought on opposing sides during the civil war in Japan, known as the Gempei War (1180-85). Kagehisa served the Taira clan while Yoshitada served the Minamoto, who were eventually victorious and went on to form the first warrior government in Japan (the Shogunate). Here, Yoshitada is depicted trying to cut off Kagehisa's head with his short sword. The face of Kagehisa is important, since it became the archetype of the defeated warrior in many of Kuniyoshi’s subsequent musha-e.

25cm x 37cm.