Asia Society

Katsukawa Shunshō: Luxury Paintings for the Elite

Technically, and in terms of their appeal, the paintings of Katsukawa Shunshō (d. 1792) rank among the most significant ever produced in Japan, irrespective of period or school. Shunshō created kabuki portraits and bijinga, “pictures of beautiful women,” situating them in detailed settings or engaged in activities that are fascinating for their closely observed detail.

Only around one hundred paintings by Shunshō are known, although hundreds of his woodcuts of kabuki actors and book illustrations have survived the great fires and natural disasters in the city of Edo since his time. Documentary accounts indicate that he increasingly diverted his energies toward luxury commissions once his reputation had been secured by his printed work. Recent research has linked Shunshō with one of the three main branches of the Tokugawa shogunal family and with Yanagisawa Nobutaki (1724–1792), the retired lord of Kōriyama in Yamato province (Nara Prefecture). The phenomenon of Shunshō painting for the samurai elite challenges the once-popular characterization of ukiyo-e as inexpensive, albeit spectacular, ephemera for the masses. Cultural interactions between samurai and townspeople were rich and complex, as many of the prints and paintings in this exhibition reveal.