Chōkōsai Eishō
Shinohara of the Tsuruya
c. 1795

Signed: Eishō ga; ōkubi-e, ōban, 40.2 x 26.0 cm; nishiki-e with dark mica ground (kurokira) and karazuri

From “Contest among Beauties of the Licensed Quarters”. This remarkably beautiful portrait is from a series of at least ten ōkubi-e depicting beauties from Yoshiwara that Eisho and Eiri designed and Yamaguchiya Chūsuke published. The use of mica (kirazuri) dates back to the publication of Katsuma Ryūsui’s fish album Umi no sachi in 1762 and was revived by Utamaro in the late 1780s. The courtesan depicted here was a painting student of Hosoda Eishi’s (cf. cat. 124 – cat. 129).

R. E. Lewis, San Francisco F. Tikotin, La Tour de Peilz (March 1965)
Riese Collection #90

This hauntingly beautiful portrait is from a series of at least ten large heads of beauties in the Yoshiwara designed by Eishō and Eiri and published by Yamaguchiya Chūsuke, whose mark appears on a few of the prints.
The use of mica on woodblock prints goes back at least as far as the appearance of Katsuma Ryūsui’s album of fishes Umi no Sachi which was published in Edo in 1762, and was revived in the poetry albums Utamaro designed in the late 1780s. Perhaps around this time Utamaro, experimenting with close-up portraits of the head-and-shoulders of well-known beauties and courtesans, tentatively added a background of silvery powdered mica to one of these and was astonished at how effectively this simple addition set off the woman’s face by making the warm tone of the unprinted paper glow like a flesh tone against the bright surface of the mica, and by suggesting that the subject was being reflected in a mirror. Utamaro’s publisher, Tsutaya Jūsaburō was also taken by the new technique. The two collaborated, other artists joined them, and finally, other publishers began using the technique, encouraged by Tsutaya’s success.

Mica can be applied to prints in different ways. It can be printed from separately engraved wooden blocks, using the techniques used for printing silver and gold and other metallic pigments. When large areas needed to be covered, however, it was much easier for the printer simply to cut a stencil to mask the already printed figure, and brush the mica over the uncovered areas with rapid movements of a brush. When mica was applied this way it tended to be thick and opaque. Tsutaya found that signatures, titles, publisher’s marks and censor’s seals which were customarily engraved on one block with the outline of the figure, were so thickly covered by the opaque mica as to become illegible. On the mica ground portraits by Utamaro and Sharaku which he published, therefore, he instructed the engravers to carve separate blocks for these marks, titles and inscriptions, and instructed the printers to stamp them over the mica once it had dried. If inscriptions on a mica ground print published by Tsutaya are covered over with mica, then, it is a sign that the mica has been renewed. Other publishers were not always as painstaking or as fastidious as Tsutaya however. On this print, for example, Eishō called for two black blocks: one a rather light grey for the outline of the courtesan’s face, hands, and costume, and another, of a rich black for her hair. The series title and Eishō’s signature seem to have been engraved together on this black block. The mica, however, was brushed on after the hair was printed, as we can see from overlapping area, and it concealed the series title so much that it is practically illegible. Two other impressions of this print are known. The title and signature on one, in the Aoki collection are as illegible as here. (Ukiyo-e Art 3, Masterpieces of Ukiyo-e, 1963, no. 195). They are more legible in the Straus-Negbaur impression (Berlin, 1928, no. 290; Michener, Japanese Colour Prints, no. 185) but this may be because the mica has extensively flaked off the surface of the print. The application of the mica on the Riese impression is uneven, however, and it is quite possible that additional mica was brushed on at a later date.

It is generally said that the use of mica was outlawed by the reform edicts of the Kansei period. The only evidence for this seems to be the fact that Sharaku continued to design yellow ground bust portraits of actors, months after his mica ground series was finished. It is clear from the wear on the keyblocks on many of the Sharaku large heads and from the different colours of mica used that they were published over a longer period of time than the summer of 1794. There are also prints by Toyokuni from the Actors on Stage series with mica grounds that postdate the Sharaku heads. Of more interest to the group under discussion, are some large heads of actors by Toyokuni published by Yamaguchiya Chūsuke, the publisher of the Eishō-Eiri series, with light mica printed over grey grounds, which date to 1798 and 1799. The prints by Eishō and Eiri have always been dated around 1794 by association with the Sharakus and the belief that mica was proscribed, but perhaps they were done in 1797 or 1798.

Reproduced in Ingelheim catalogue, no. 82.