Utagawa Toyokuni I (初代歌川豊国) (artist 1769 – 02/24/1825)

Ichiyōsai (go - 一陽斎)
Kumaemon (nickname - 熊右衛門)
Kumakichi (nickname - 熊吉)
Kurahashi (original family name - 倉橋)



Laurence Binyon in his Japanese Colour Print, published in 1906, wrote about Toyokuni in relationship to Utamaro: "...what was Toyokuni doing? For in the eyes of the public he was the artist who stood out as Utamaro's closest rival."


"It is a fact, as well, that Sharaku's work exerted a profound effect on the printmakers who followed him, notably Enkyō and Toyokuni."

Quoted from: The Japanese Print: A Historical Guide by Hugo Munsterberg, p. 99.

Born in Edo in 1769. A few years younger than Eishi and Utamaro, both of whom had an influence on him. "At sixteen he became a pupil of Utagawa Toyoharu and in 1784 was permitted to take the Utagawa name. His earliest work consisted largely of book illustrations, but by the mid-nineties he had turned to the depiction of beautiful women in the style of Utamaro." (Ibid., p. 105) However, it was his actor portrayals that Toyokuni made his main focus. It was his series called Views of Actors on Stage from ca. 1794-6 that made his fame. "...it at once established him as a leading artist of the Kabuki stage... In this genre, as in bijinga, he was very eclectic, reflecting the style of Shunkō, Shun'ei, and especially Sharaku, and after these three ceased working he became the undisputed master in this field. In fact he enjoyed a much greater reputation than Sharaku in his own lifetime and was considered one of the masters of the Japanese print. The modern estimate of his work varied. Some critics regard him as a truly great artist whose work ranks with that of the best of his contemporaries, while others have dismissed him as an eclectic who copies all his contemporaries but adds little to their contribution." The real answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. While it is undeniable that some of his early pieces were masterpieces, the later works do not usually show the same qualities. One reason for this decline may have been the tremendous demand for his work.(Ibid., p. 106)

Munsterberg summed up Toyokuni's career this way: "In consequence the typical Toyokuni print after the early decades of the nineteenth century lacks all of the artistic refinement of even his own early work and sets the stage for the shoddy mass production of the late Edo period. Just who was to blame for this development has been debated for decades. No doubt Toyokuni contributed to it by producing too many prints too rapidly, but the times had changed, and the public for the prints, as well as the publishers themselves, had become less demanding and no longer showed the discriminating artistic taste that had prevailed during the golden age of ukiyo-e."

"Both Toyokuni and Toyohiro [another pupil of Toyoharu] were extremely effective as teachers, and it was due to them that the Utagawa school became the most influential one in the ukiyo-e of the first half of the nineteenth century. Among Toyokuni's innumerable pupils were his son-in-law, who after his master's death took the name Toyokuni II; Kuniyoshi; and, above all, Kunisada, who also called himself Toyokuni III. But they were merely the best known of numerous minor artists who studied under Toyokuni, most of them using the second character of his name in their own."

Some sources believe that Hiroshige wanted to study with Toyokuni but that the master was unable to take him on because he already had too many students. On the other hand, Kunisada joined Toyokuni's studio as an apprentice in 1801 when he was just 15 years old.


Robert T. Paine in writing for the bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1962 says that he believes that many of Toyokuni I's actor prints precede the work of Sharaku by a few months. They had different publishers. Paine notes: "Even in the use of mica grounds Toyokuni preceded Sharaku."


The curatorial files online at the Tikotin Museum in Haifa say: "Toyoharu gave Toyokuni the family name Utagawa and the first two syllables of his own name, and chose him to replace himself as head of the school when he retired. The first work Toyokuni signed with this name was an illustration for a novel written in 1786 by Shinratei Manzo. His first woodblock prints, of women, were published one year later. At the end of the 1780s and during the early 1790s, Toyokuni continued to illustrate books and publish prints of women. The exact dates of these works are not known, but in all of them it is evident that his inspiration, the depiction of women - as for all artists of his generation - derived from the prints of Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815), Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), and Hosoda Eishi (1756-1829)."