The link between the zodiac creature and the historical character is very explicit in this very fine warrior print from Kuniyoshi of 1854. This great series of 12 prints illustrates the signs of the Japanese zodiac, taking individual Japanese heroes – warriors, generals and so on – and pairing their characteristics with the animals of the astrological chart. The twelve animals are: rat, bull, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog and boar. These animals were chosen because they were called by the Buddha to his death bed. All of the prints in the series have the title on a shaded oblong cartouche including the name of the hero and the character for the sign.
In this print Kuniyoshi shows the fourteenth century samurai and general, Shinodzuka Iga no Kami. He stands on the sea shore, raving – a man possessed – one of Kuniyoshi’s great representations of warriors. This terrifying apparition in black armor (blind printed and burnished) wears a helmet with a mane of white animal hair, surmounted by a bronze hare with enormous ears. He grasps a spear and he stands defiantly in a field of broken, fallen arrows. He was a retainer of the powerful warlord Nitta no Yoshisada, a maverick who may have been responsible for the eventual split between the Northern and Southern courts. Shinodzuka was renowned for his phenomenal strength and is often pictured showing impossible feats of energy.
The Woodblock Print
This oban-sized woodblock is in fine to very fine condition; trimmed of its margins as is typical, this print has exceptional color and detail. Clear verso, limited edge wear. Some rubbing/wear along the left edge of the image. No creases or stains. A few small pin-prick holes.
About the Artist
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳, January 1, 1798 – April 14, 1861) was a Japanese artist who was active during the Edo period, from the late 18th to mid-19th century. He was born in 1797 in Edo, which is now Tokyo, and was the son of a silk-dyer. Kuniyoshi was known for his bold and dynamic ukiyo-e prints, which depicted a wide range of subjects, including historical scenes, kabuki actors, and mythical creatures.
Kuniyoshi began his artistic training as an apprentice in a print shop, where he learned to design and carve woodblocks. He later studied under the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Toyokuni, who was a prominent figure in the Edo period. Kuniyoshi developed his own distinctive style, which was characterized by bold lines, vibrant colors, and exaggerated forms.
Kuniyoshi’s prints were highly popular during his lifetime, and he was considered one of the leading artists of the Edo period. His depictions of kabuki actors, in particular, were highly sought after by collectors, as they captured the essence of the dramatic performances that were popular in Japan at the time.
One of Kuniyoshi’s most famous series of prints is the “One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Suikoden,” which depicts the exploits of a group of Chinese bandits. The series was highly influential and inspired other artists, including the French Impressionist Edgar Degas. Kuniyoshi also created prints that depicted historical events and legends, which were notable for their vivid colors and dynamic compositions.
Despite his success as an artist, Kuniyoshi faced challenges in his personal life. He was accused of producing prints that were critical of the shogunate, which led to him being placed under surveillance by the government. He was also deeply affected by the death of his son, which led to a decline in his health and artistic output.
Kuniyoshi died in 1861 at the age of 63, but his legacy lives on. His prints continue to be highly regarded for their technical skill and artistic merit, and they are housed in major art institutions around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London.