Natori Shunsen (名取春仙) (artist 1886 – 1960)



"Natori Shunsen, 1886–1960 Son of a silk merchant, Natori Yoshinosuke was born just west of Tokyo, but his family moved to the city when he was still a boy. By age eleven he was studying painting with the nihonga (Japanese-style) painter Kubota Beisen (1852–1906), who gave him the name “Shunsen.” He finished his education at the Tokyo School of Fine Art. In 1909 he was hired as an illustrator for a Tokyo daily newspaper, the Asahi Shinbun. His job was to make illustrations of literary figures who were also often portrayed in the theater; this led to his interest in creating images of Kabuki actors—first in paintings and then in woodblock prints.

Shunsen began his association with Watanabe Shōzaburō in 1916, for whom he produced his best body of work: a series of actor prints sold by subscription from 1925 to 1929, with one print released about every month. Shunsen's series “36 Portraits of Actors” was listed as “Portraits of Actors in Male Roles” in the 1930 Toledo catalogue. In 1931 he made the series “15 Contemporary Actors in Kabuki Plays” and from 1951 to 1954 he worked with Watanabe on “30 Contemporary Actor Prints.” Though he also made some prints of beauties (bijinga), they were never as successful as his insightful actor prints.

Sadly, Shunsen and his wife committed suicide at the family tomb in 1960, two years after their daughter's untimely death from pneumonia.

Bibliography: Putney, Carolyn M, Brown, Kendall H., Shuko, Koyama. Binnie, Paul. Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints, Toledo, Toledo Museum of Art, 2013.repr. (col.) pp. 201.


"On February 7, 1886, Michi, the wife of Natori Ichijirō, gave birth to their fifth son, Yoshinosuke, known today by his pen name, Shunsen. Ichijirō was a silk merchant in Yamanashi prefecture, but his business failed in 1887, and the family moved to the first of a series of crowded homes in Tokyo. Yoshinosuke enjoyed considerable success in elementary and middle school and talent in draughtsmanship. He began to study the techniques of traditional painting, first with a local artist, Hishioka Yūshin, and from 1900 with the Nihonga master Kubota Beisen (I852-I906). Following tradition Yoshinosuke received an artistic name incorporating the character sen (immortal) from his master, and began to sign his work as Shunsen.

The young artist soon beganto submit paintings to exhibitions and, in I904, entered the Tokyo Art Academy, now the Tokyo University of the Fine Arts. Though he dropped out in the next year, Shunsen continued to exhibit paintings in local and national exhibitions, also establishing a reputation as an illustrator. In 1916, his portrait of kabuki actor Nakamura Gonjūrō I (1860-1935) came to the attention of publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō, who convinced Shunsen to adapt that painting and another for woodblock publication. For the next nine years however, Shunsen continued his career as an illustrator and painter, only returning to produce prints with Watanabe in 1925.

The result of the collaboration was a series called Shunsen nigao shū, sometimes translated as Portraits of Actors in Various Roles. Produced between I925 and I929... Watanabe's artisans were at this time at the peak of their skills, producing blocks with pristine, clear lines, and inking them in brilliant colors that reflect the evolution of tonalities to a modern vibrancy. The series was extended by I I more prints between I929 and I934... Around this time, Watanabe also convinced Shunsen to design a few prints with other subjects, such as beautiful women, landscapes, and animals... With the exception of a few prints produced during the war years... the artist worked in other media until 1950.

"The last phase of Shunsen's career as a printmaker lasted for just three years—from 1951 to 1954—and resulted in another powerful series: Butai no sugata-e (Forms of Actors Onstage)... Even after he turned seventy in 1956, the artist continued to paint and produce drawings for prints and to teach until 1958. That year, his beloved daughter Yoshiko (b.1936) died of pneumonia. Overcome with grief at the loss of their only child, Shunsen and his wife of 26 years committed double suicide at the grave of their daughter on March 30, 1960."

Quoted from: Dramatic Impressions: Japanese Theatre Prints from the Gilbert Luber Collection by Frank L. Chance and Julie Nelson Davis, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, pp. 37-38.