Utagawa Kunisada, also known as Toyokuni III, was the most popular, prolific and financially successful designer of ukiyo-e woodblock prints in 19th-century Japan. In his own time, his reputation far exceeded that of his contemporaries, Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Kuniyoshi.
Almost from the first day of his activity, and even at the time of his death in early 1865, Kunisada was a trendsetter in the art of the Japanese woodblock print. Always at the vanguard of his time, and in tune with the tastes of the public, he continuously developed his style, which was sometimes radically changed, and did not adhere to stylistic constraints set by any of his contemporaries.
His productivity was extraordinary. As of this writing, approximately 14,500 individual designs have been catalogued (multi-ptych sets counted as a single design) corresponding to more than 22,500 individual sheets. It seems probable based on these figures that Kunisada actually produced between 20,000 and 25,000 designs for woodblock prints during his lifetime (i.e. 35,000 to 40,000 individual sheets).
Following the traditional pattern of the Utagawa school, Kunisada’s main occupation was kabuki and actor prints, and about 60% all of his designs fall in this category. However he was also highly active in the area of bijin prints (comprising about 15% of his complete works), and their total number was far higher than any other artist of his time. From 1820 to 1860 he likewise dominated the market for portraits of Sumo wrestlers. For a long time (1835-1850) he had an almost complete monopoly on the genre of Genji prints, it was only after 1850 that other artists began to produce similar designs.
Noteworthy also are the number of his surimono, although they were designed almost exclusively prior to 1844, few artists were better-known in this area.
Kunisada’s paintings, which were privately commissioned, are little-known, but can be compared to those of other masters of ukiyoe painting. His activity as a book illustrator is also largely unexplored. Obviously he was no less productive in the area of ehon than he was in full-sized prints, but major research in this area is lacking. Notable among his book prints are shunga pictures, which appeared in numerous books, but due to censorship, signed only on the title page with his alias “Matahei”. Landscape prints and musha-e (samurai warrior prints) by Kunisada are rare, and only about 100 designs in each of these genres are known. He effectively left these two fields to be covered by his contemporaries Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi, respectively.
The mid-1840’s and early 1850s, were a period of expansion when woodblock prints were in high demand in Japan. During this time Kunisada collaborated with (one or both of) Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi in three major series as well as on a number of smaller projects. The fact should be emphasized that this co-operation was in large part politically motivated in order to demonstrate solidarity against the intensified censorship regulations of the Tenpo reforms. Also beginning around the mid-1850’s there are series in which individual parts of designs (and sometimes complete sheets) are signed by Kunisada’s students, this was done with the intention of promoting their work as individual artists. Notable students of Kunisada included Toyohara Kunichika, Utagawa Sadahide and Utagawa Kunisada II.