Utagawa Kunisada (Japanese, 1786-1864)
Spring (Haru): Viewing Irises in the Garden, 1849
Color woodcut, oban triptych 14 1/4 in. x 29 1/2 in. (36.2 cm x 74.86 cm)
Crocker Art Museum, gift of Alan Templeton2008.53
Woodblock printing developed in Japan in the 8th century with the arrival of Buddhism, but it was in the early 18th century that the distinctive style of ukiyo-e prints (pictures of the floating world) originated. The medium provided a means to offer large numbers of prints to a wide audience inexpensively.
The artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864) followed the Utagawa school of printmaking founded by Utagawa Toyoharu (1733–1814), which was famous for its theatrical and actor portrait prints. Kunisada, who was born in the vicinity of Edo to a merchant family, was apprenticed to the artist Toyokuni at the age of fifteen. He ultimately surpassed that artist to become the most celebrated print designer of the 19th century. Like many Japanese printmakers, he took his teacher’s name after his death, and signed many of his works Toyokuni II or III.
Kunisada was prolific; his studio issued at least 20,000 designs, many of which were printed in the thousands. Though he produced some landscape prints, he was best known for his actor prints (yakusha-e) and his prints of beautiful women (bijin-ga). This triptych of a spring scene of iris viewing comes from a series depicting the seasons (Shiki no uchi).
The print is a mitate-e (analog picture) depicting the 11th century Prince Genji in the central panel surrounded by beauties wearing 19th-century dress. The wooden planks upon which they stand constitute eight bridges (yatsuhashi), a possible allusion to the 10th century Ise monogatori, a famous collection of poems and narratives. The wild kakitsubata (water irises) also have literary associations based on such classics as the 11th-century Genji monogatari.1