I have only just started to get involved in ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints). I've always been a little wary of them, since I have no training to help me and there are so many pitfalls one can fall into. Still, here are a few prints that I saw recently and liked and decided to buy, and I'm now on the path to understanding how to find my way around this fascinating area of traditional Japanese culture.

Artist: Toyokuni I

Subject: Kabuki actor

Depicting: Sawamura III (?). Note the shell-like actor's mon (emblematic design).

Year: 1824 (?)

Size: 25 x 36 cm.

Comments: The mountain shape with a kanji beneath it, next to the signature (bottom right), is the trademark of the publisher, Matsumara Yahei. I bought this from a seller who didn't know all that much about it, but it had been researched by a previous owner/dealer and came with notes giving the date as 1824. I can't confirm this date. All I can say is that it has the kiwame seal, used from 1790 to 1845, which is pretty vague. I'm hoping to get some leads on how to date it a bit more exactly. It has a bit of worming and a bit of repair work, reinforcing the left edge.



Artist: Toyokuni III

Subject: Kabuki actors

Depicting: Nakamura Shigan, oyama (female part), and Ichimura Uzaemon, tachiyaku (male part)

Year: 1863 (?)

Size: 25 x 36 cm.

Comments: Toyokuni III (1786-1864) was born as Utagawa Kunisada, and changed his name several times. In 1844 he took the name of his teacher Toyokuni I.

This print was sold to me (by a Japanese dealer) with the year given as 1863. However, when I got it home and started to crosscheck the details I was not able to confirm this, though it definitely dates from about this period. There is a Y-shaped area, a couple of inches below the two top-left text boxes, and slightly above the artist's name that has been carefully and quite skilfully repaired, and the damaged area includes the top part of the small but all-important censor's seal, which contains the date. Here is a close-up of what remains of the seal:


The picture isn't very clear, but it's the best I can do.

Using Self and Hirose, Japanese Art Signatures, I was able to work out that the aratame (the kanji pictogram meaning "examined") is intact, in the bottom half of the seal. This is important, because it dates the print somewhere between 1859 and 1863 (or, occasionally, a little later), when the aratame was positioned in this way.

When the aratame appears at the bottom of the seal (according to Self and Hirose) it is generally enclosed in the kanji numeral that shows the month. In this case, it would appear to be enclosed by the kanji for "four" (i.e., the print was made in the fourth month of the year), but the damage to the seal makes it difficult to be sure.

The zodiacal sign, which would give the year, is almost entirely missing, but what there is of it seems more compatible with the sign for the Year of the Cock (1861) than with the Year of the Boar (1863).



Artist: Toyokuni III

Subject: Kabuki actors

Year: 1855

Size: 25 x 36 cm.

Comments: No difficulties dating this one. It has the circular aratame seal, in use from 1853-1857, accompanied by the date seal showing the third month of the year of the hare (i.e., March, 1855). A very good print, with just a touch of worming and no repairs.


Artist: Inoue Yasuji  

Subject: A study of an artist painting a Buddhist picture

Year: 1886

Size: 23.5 x 35 cm.

Comments: Inoue also went by the names of Yasuhara and Tankei. His name is written as Tankei in the bottom right-hand corner of this print. He was set to lead a revival in the art of ukiyo-e, but that hope was frustrated when he died in 1889, at the age of 25. He was a pupil of Kobayashi Kiyochika, whose influence can be detected in many of his works (both were influenced by French impressionism). He is best known for his landscapes. After 1876 censorship of prints ended and official seals were no longer required. This print has the artist's seal (smudged and faded, but still just about legible) and signature in the bottom right-hand corner, and the year is given at the very bottom of the print.


Inoue used several different names and seals, but I was able to confirm this one by comparison with another Inoue print, the signature and seal on which are shown here (left).


I particularly like the way the artist plays with the medium - pictures within a picture, the student's painting only palely visible from the reverse side, and his shadow on the wall, with a kind of mandorla or halo of light that echoes the figure he is painting. It's not in perfect condition - a few stains, a bit of fading and some bleeding of colour through to the reverse of the print, but it was my first ukiyo-e purchase and I'm very attached to it.


Artist: Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)

Subject: Kabuki actor in the role of oiran (Oiran are the highest class of geisha. Click here for further details.)

Year: 1889

Size: 23.5 x 35 cm. (3 prints)

Comments: Each print has the date in the left-hand margin - the first day of the twelfth month, Meiji 22 (i.e., December 1st, 1889). They are in very good condition apart from some of the brown-shaded areas, which have corroded. They appear to be the middle three prints of a set of five.


To me, what really makes or breaks these prints is whether they are framed and displayed appropriately. The Kunichika triptych, for example, didn't appeal to me all that much when I bought it (with the three sections stuck together), but once I separated the sections and framed them they began to look like something more than a rather ridiculous bunch of demure gentlemen in gaudy clothes. Here are the above prints, framed and hung.