Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) was still working as an artist when Vincent van Gogh purchased his prints. It is likely that the bright colours used by Kunichika appealed to him.
Synthetic pigments had now arrived on the market in Japan, allowing artists to make the already vivid woodcuts even more intense. Despite using bright colours, Kunichika was still firmly rooted in tradition. His subjects and compositions are essentially no different to those of his mentor, Kunisada.
Backstage in the theatre
Kunichika was passionate about kabuki theatre and could often be found at playhouses. He sketched the actors, either backstage or while they were performing.
Kunichika was so comfortable in the world of kabuki that it took little effort for him to capture each actor at the decisive part of a scene, with a characteristic expression or pose.
While Van Gogh was probably mainly drawn to the chromatic intensity and decorative qualities of Kunichika’s portraits of actors, the story behind what we see is often very exciting.
In the print that depicts two actors from the series Four Seasons of Jōruri, the kimonos worn by the men indicate that they are acting the parts of soup bowl seller Wankyū and a mask seller from the play Wankyū michiyuki. Wankyū squanders his entire fortune on a courtesan and is subsequently locked in a room by his family, where he goes mad.