Bandō Mitsugorō II as Nagoya Sanza and Segawa Kikunojō III as Sono’o-no-mae

Color woodblock print: ōban tate-e, 15⅜ x 10⅜ in. (38.7 x 25.4 cm); 1795–96, Series: Untitled series of double half-length portraits, Signed: Toyokuni ga, Publisher: Den

Toyokuni was the leading theater print designer and book illustrator at the turn of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The son of a puppet or doll maker, he entered the school of a neighbor, the ukiyo-e painter and landscapist Utagawa Toyoharu (1735−1814), from whom he received his family name Utagawa. From the start, Toyokuni displayed a mastery of the brush and exceptional technical skill.  By mid-1790s, as the star of the Katsukawa School was beginning to fade, his own brand of sharp and incisive theatre portraiture emerged. The new style is best exemplified by his series of actor prints for the publisher Izumiya Ichibei entitled Yakusha butai no sugata-e (A Pictorial Almanac of Actors on the Stage), in which he combined realistic portraits of his subjects in the manner of Tōshūsai Sharaku (act. 1794–95) with the exaggeratedly elongated figures popularized by Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) and Hosoda Eishi (1756–1829). This series, as well as an extended group of ōkubi-e actor portraits published by Uemura Yōhei and prints from the present series, are the works his reputation rests on today.

This print appears to be the only known impression extant. It belongs to a set of fifteen known prints which feature double half-length portraits for plays staged in three of Edo’s theaters in the fall of 1796. The prints were made by an unidentified publisher whose mark reading Den beneath a single peak mountain appears on fourteen of them. Many of the prints, like this one, have a gray background printed with a roughly applied baren which gives it a texture. Many also have colored outlines for the actors faces, a feature found on prints by Kitagawa Utamaro (1754–1806) of the same period. None of the prints have a kiwame or censor’s seal, as required by law if they were for public sale. Perhaps a reason for their rarity and the costly production values is that deluxe actor prints such as this may have been commissioned privately for promotional purposes or for wealthy members of fan clubs, in an age before actor surimono became commonplace. Since these prints were not for public distribution a censor’s seal would not have been required.

Unfortunately, while the actors can easily be identified by their personal crests, the name of the role is not given. Theatrical records for this period are not complete, and it is therefore impossible to give a definitive answer as to the identity of the roles. We know that the two actors were hired by the Kiri theater for the 1796 season, which narrows the possibilities. The prints from this group depict performances that date from and seventh month until the eleventh month, so the most likely candidates as subjects are Mitsugorō II as the ronin Nagoya Sanza and Kikunojō III as Sono’o-no-mae, in the play Monogusa Tarō, that was performed in the Kiri theater in 9/1796. No corroborating theater program is extant, and this is not the usual costume that Sanza would appear in, but the chrysanthemum and ivy patterns on the actors’ robes would have added a suitably autumnal flavor to the performance.

We would like to thank Paul Griffith and John T. Carpenter for their assistance in the identification and dating of this print.

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