actor print (yakusha-e)
Kabuki theatre held a prominent place in cultural life of the Japanese capital. The well-to-do members of society returned to the theatre evening upon evening, and closely followed the exploits of the best-known actors. They enjoyed purchasing prints of their favourite actors, which explains why portraits of actors are the most common subject in Japanese printmaking.
Actors were often depicted in the role that best suited them. Of course, the woodcuts only served to make the actors even more famous. Kunisada was one of the masters of portraits of actors. He is estimated to have designed tens of thousands of these sorts of figures.
Learning from the portraits
Vincent van Gogh had a large number of portraits of actors in his collection – approximately 90 in total. It is likely that he primarily looked to the style of these portraits for inspiration. Van Gogh himself aspired to become a painter of expressive portraits, and the Japanese prints of actors served as a fine example.
By studying works by artists including Kunichika, Van Gogh learned how to fill up the canvas with his figures. Just like the Japanese master, Van Gogh used heavy outlines and positioned his subjects against a richly-decorated, flat background, as you can see in Portrait of Père Tanguy.