Utagawa Kuniyoshi
The First Plum Blossoms

Publisher’s seal: Ibaya Senban (Ibaya Sensaburō) and logo; censor’s seals: Mera and Murata; Engraver’s seal: Horikō Fusajirō; ōban triptych, 37.5 x 76.6 cm; nishiki-e with fukibokashi

Three women depicted as half-portraits are standing in front of a blossoming plum tree. They are wearing warm, striped, winter kimono with garments displaying fine prints underneath. The triptych conveys an impression of the freshness and clarity that is indicative of the new ideal of beauty perfected in the works of Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Kunisada – we encounter women who are more self-confident and elegant than the placid bijin of the 1790s.

Hettie Rhoda Meade, New York (Sotheby’s, London, March 1961)
Riese Collection #111

The three women in this brilliantly fresh triptych express the new feeling for beauty that began to develop in the 1820s in prints by artists like Kunisada and Eizan but found its fullest expression in portraits of beauties of the 1850s by Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige, and Kunisada. The new feminine beauty was clear, bright, almost harsh, and was expressed in Japanese by the word ada, seductive, alluring, attractive, but nearly brazen; the expression of a woman who knew her own worth and knew what she wanted. Older men might yearn for the simpler and softer beauties of the 1790s, but the young found this brash new beauty intoxicating.

Besides the extreme refinement of its printing and engraving, this triptych is also interesting for its deliberate contrast of the ukiyo-e style figures with the painterly brushwork of the plum tree in the background.

Reproduced in: Ingelheim catalogue, no. 97.