Katsukawa Shun'ei
The Actor Sakata Hangorō III as Kaminari Shōkurō

Signed: Shun’ei ga; Publisher’s logo: sen; hanshin-e, aiban, 31.9 x 22.5 cm; nishiki-e with white mica ground

Sakata Hangorō is playing one of the five popular heroes from the story of a band of robbers Karigane gonin otoko. He is wearing a towel on which the two katakana symbols for the name of his role (sho + yo = shō) can be recognized. Performance schedules indicated that this woodblock print appeared two months before Sharaku’s first prints. Shun’ei demonstrates his adherence to the tradition of the Katsukawa school in this hanshin-e and thus to Shunshō’s style.

Provenance: Mutiaux, Paris; Loncle, Paris; F. Tikotin, La Tour de Peilz (December 1964)
Riese Collection #48

Large heads and half-length portraits appeared in the Japanese prints as early as the 1720s, but until the 1760s when Katsukawa Shunshō introduced a style of drawing and engraving which allowed one to recognise actors by their facial features rather than by printed name or crest, they did not achieve any great importance or popularity. In 1770, Shunshō and his colleague Ippitsusai Bunchō designed a three volume book with dozens of half-length portraits imitating painted portraits on fans which were then in vogue. Following the success of this book, Shunshō designed some large half-length portraits in fan-shaped format, and in the late 1780s his pupil Shunkō designed an impressive series of large heads with blue backgrounds. But it was not until the early 1790s that the large close-up portrait came into its own in the works of Utamaro, Shun’ei, Toyokuni, Kunimasa and Sharaku. These artists found that the human face could express a dignity, strength, intensity and pathos that their predecessors had either overlooked or taken little interest in. Shun’ei, influenced perhaps by the example of Ōsaka artists like Ryūkōsai, was the first Edo actor portraitist to discover and explore the new possibilities available in the large head, and this print, one of the masterpieces of the Riese collection, was one of his first achievements. Predating the portraits of Sharaku by two months, Shun’ei seems to have been the first artist to portray an actor against the flat and shining surface of a mica ground.

Shun’ei’s expressive draughtmanship speaks for itself, but his true gift was for colour. Because of the fugative vegetable dyes used in this period, few prints have survived unfaded, and Shun’ei’s ability to convey feeling through colour is largely unnoticed or forgotten. In this print, however, we should notice how the delicate blue, pink and purple on the kimono suit the nearly pinkish white of the mica ground, and how all these colours delicately contrast with the warm cream-coloured tone of the paper that colours the actor’s face and hand, a warmth which is accentuated by the touch of yellow on the bowl of the pipe in the lower right-hand corner.

Kaminari Shōkurō was an otokodate, a roistrous, blustering bully who was, however, always ready to take sides with a commoner against a government official, or to help a victim to escape from a tormentor. He and four of his chivalrous friends were the subject of this play. The actor’s name is inscribed in the upper left-hand corner of the print in ink. The print seems to have been the right-hand panel of a diptych, another actor as another otokodate facing Hangorō, also against a mica ground.

Reproduced in: Teruji Yoshida, Yakusha Butai Sugata-e no Kenkyu, Ukiyo-e no. 27, 1966.
Kobijutsu, no. 20, 1967, p. 46.
Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Ukiyo-e, 1969, no. 191
Ingelheim catalogue, no. 42.
Riese, Asiatische Studien, 1972, p. 90, no. 15.