Trivium Art History
The Artists

Utagawa Kuniyoshi1797 — 1861

An underdog artist pits monsters vs. superheroes

An underdog artist pits monsters vs. superheroes

In 1811, the 14 year old son of a silk-dyer was admitted to Japan’s famous Utagawa school of printing. The young boy was named Yoshisaburo, but the school’s master, Toyokuni Utagawa gave him a new name — Kuniyoshi Utagawa. This name would go down in history as an artist who brought Japan’s ghosts, demons and heroes to raging, colorful life.

Kuniyoshi, as he was known after joining the Utagawa school, was an able apprentice and graduated as an independent artist in just 3 years. But the world of ukiyo-e printmaking was competitive, and Kuniyoshi was up against the best — Kunisada, Hokusai, and Hiroshige were all working contemporaries. For more than 10 years Kuniyoshi barely scraped by. He won few commissions and had to sell used straw tatami mats to make ends meet.

But every underdog deserves a breakthrough — and a run-in with his old classmate Kunisada, now an incredibly successful artist, lit a fire under Kuniyoshi. Kuniyoshi went back to the drawing board to create a new artistic style all his own. He pulled out all the stops, tossing aside the quiet portraits of gracious women ’bijinga’, and the subtle compositions and colors that made competitors like Kunisada famous. More action, more violence and a whole lot of monsters.

Go bold, go scary

This was the new Kuniyoshi — a painter of big baddies and brave heroes. In 1827 he was commissioned to create a series of prints based on the tale Shuihu Zhuan, “The Outlaws of the Marsh” — essentially the Robin Hood of Edo Japan. Kuniyoshi’s outlaws were tattooed badasses who battle the 108 demonic overlords known as the “stars of destiny.” Unsurprisingly, “The Outlaws of the Marsh” was hugely popular — and catapulted Kuniyoshi into success.

Kuniyoshi had found his rhythm. Over the next 15 years he kept the Japanese public on the edge of their seats with ghastly images of hideous monsters, giant skeletons, and the valiant samurai who defeated them. Though in his later years Kuniyoshi would move toward quieter subject matter during the censorship and conservatism of the Tenpō reforms, he had forever changed Japanese art — indulging the dark side, glorifying heroism, and laying the foundation for contemporary Japanese media from Dragon Ball Z to Attack on Titan.

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The Earth Spider Creating Monsters

The Earth Spider Creating Monsters

1843
The Taira ghosts arising from the sea

The Taira ghosts arising from the sea

1845
Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

1843-1847
The Okazaki Cat Demon

The Okazaki Cat Demon

1850
Ushiwakamaru Fights Benkei on Gojô Bridge

Ushiwakamaru Fights Benkei on Gojô Bridge

1847-1850
Ghosts, Devils and the King of Hell

Ghosts, Devils and the King of Hell

1850
Tamatori escaping from the Dragon King

Tamatori escaping from the Dragon King

1853
Recovering a Jewel from the Palace of the Dragon King

Recovering a Jewel from the Palace of the Dragon King

1853
Prince Yoshitsune learning the art of swordsmanship

Prince Yoshitsune learning the art of swordsmanship

1858
The Poet Dainagon Sees an Apparition

The Poet Dainagon Sees an Apparition

1860
1701
Visionary promoter of photography
Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre
Nudes teach you everything you need to know (to paint landscapes)
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Drama, movement and a search for the exotic
Eugène Delacroix
Bigger is better
Théodore Géricault
1900

The artists of Edo Period