A pupil of the ukiyo e artist Utagawa Toyokuni, Kunisada emerged as an artist in 1807 with book illustrations, and the following year began to do actor prints. He specialized in actor prints and landscapes. In the 1830s he studied a more classical style of painting with artists in the Hanabusa studio, but he returned to ukiyo e briefly in the 1840s, when in 1844 he took the name of Toyokuni III (despite the fact that this name belonged to another of Toyokuni's pupils). In 1845 he retired.
Shirabyôshi were itinerant female dancers of medieval Japan, who traveled the country in male dress. Here we see a kabuki actor in a role as the shirabyôshi Sakuragi, whose name means "cherry tree," a point the artist drives home with cherry blossoms in the kimono and in the background. Thus we have a double layer of cross-dressing here, with a male actor in the guise of a woman dancer garbed in men’s clothing.
Utagawa Kunisada was a pupil of Utagawa Toyokuni, from whom he took the Utagawa name. In 1844 he began to sign his prints "Toyokuni" and refer to himself as Toyokuni II, despite the fact that another pupil had already claimed that title. Kunisada did many privately commissioned actor prints in which printing technology was pushed to new levels of refinement, and some of the new developments are seen here. This print is in excellent condition, still retaining a strong impression of gauffrage or blind printing. The brilliant colors are the result of the use of imported chemical-based aniline dyes.
"Courtesans, Cross-Dressers, and the Girl Next Door Images of the Feminine in Japanese Popular Prints"
3/9 - 9/1/02
artist's seal: Toyokuni ga, in toshidama cartouche