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Artist: Torii Kiyonaga (鳥居清長)

Alternate names:
鳥居 清長

Lifetime: 1752 - 1815

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Biography:

Kiyonaga is considered one of the great masters of the full-color print (nishiki-e) and of bijinga, images of courtesans and other beautiful women. Like most ukiyo-e artists, however, he also produced a number of prints and paintings depicting Kabuki actors and related subjects, many of them promotional materials for the theaters. He also produced a number of shunga, or erotic images. In the field of bijinga, only the works of Suzuki Harunobu and a handful of others are generally regarded comparable with those of Kiyonaga. Kiyonaga produced a great many bijinga prints in the 1780s, and this is generally regarded as his high point; this is particularly true because he nearly stopped doing art entirely in the early 1790s. Some scholars point out the beauty of his paintings as being particularly exceptional given his commoner heritage and upbringing. Adopted into the Torii family, Kiyonaga's biological father was the owner of a number of tenements near a fish market; though his family may not have been particularly poor, he was certainly not brought up in an environment of high culture. Meanwhile, contemporary artists of the samurai class, who would be expected to have a better innate sense of the aesthetics and details of aristocratic culture, produced images quite arguably inferior to those of Kiyonaga. The women in Kiyonaga's prints are often described as seeming fuller and more mature than those of his predecessor Harunobu, whose prints often depict women who seem younger and thinner. Though a difference of personal styles accounts for this primarily, it also comes in part from Kiyonaga's use of larger sheets of paper (ōban, rather than chūban or hosoban[1]). Also, a great proportion of Kiyonaga's work is in diptych or triptych form, making the work seem larger and more impressive overall. Just as Kiyonaga can be said to have replaced the earlier Harunobu as the most popular bijinga artist of his time, so Kiyonaga can be said to have been replaced by Utamaro, whose women are even fuller and mature than those of the former. Kiyonaga's Kabuki prints, depicting scenes on stage and the like, show a great attention to detail, and seek to depict real Kabuki scenes, rather than idealized versions. There is something very plain about much of his depictions, showing that those depicted are in fact actors and not the true idealized characters they represent; however, he did not make the leap to portraying the individual features and personalities of the actors as some other artists (including the Katsukawa school) did. Some scholars label his style as an important intermediary step leading to the bombastic, yet realistic, style of Sharaku.