Van Gogh owned several prints by Kunichika - but probably didn’t know it

As Van Gogh’s birthday approaches (30 March 1853), the Lady Lever Art Gallery highlights his love of Kunichika and displays a triptych of which the Dutch artist owned only two parts.

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Kunichika: Japanese Prints will open at the Lady Lever Art Gallery on 15 April until 4 September 2022 and is the first exhibition in a national gallery outside of Japan to focus on his work.  

It will show 68 of Kunichika’s hand-printed single, diptych and triptych prints, featuring behind-the-scenes dressing room views, on-stage dramatic moments and close-up portraits of actors, as well as ten prints selected from his various series of ‘female beauties’.  

The exhibition includes a triptych dating from January 1864 - it is a New Year Print – of a wintry snowy setting beside the Sumida river in the city of Edo (present day Tokyo). It shows three Kabuki actors, each wearing their own giant personal crest or "mon". 

Van Gogh owned two parts of another copy of this three-part print (the central and left sections) and he likely bought it from the Paris dealer Bing who specialised in oriental furniture, decor and prints at his 19 Rue Chauchet shop. 

Art historian, Kunichika collector and guest curator, Frank Milner said:

Van Gogh probably paid about two or three pence for his two print parts and hoped to sell them for three or four times that amount. He is unlikely to have known who the two depicted kabuki actors were or that Kunichika designed his print. Van Gogh bought Japanese prints that visually pleased him and were cheap. He believed that Japanese artists and print designers all shared an exquisite sense of design - but he had little knowledge about the subjects of the prints or the market conditions for prints in Japan. 

The two parts of the print that Van Gogh owned are now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, along with the two hundred or so other of his 19th-century Japanese print collection, of which a dozen or more are by Kunichika. Van Gogh drew inspiration from these prints, pinning them on his walls near his easel, and his own strong black outlines, flat areas of colour, compositions and poses show just how much he admired and tried to emulate these works. 

It is true Van Gogh may not have known who Kunichika was, but he certainly admired his art, examples of which he kept beside him right up until his death.   

Dave Moffat, Assistant Curator (Decorative Art), Lady Lever Art Gallery said:

We don’t know how many copies of this triptych were made but it is a seasonal print, made in January 1864 so a New Year print most likely sold for a short while, perhaps only 1,000 to 1,500 were made. It would have been a nice thing to give a kabuki fan as a New Year gift. Van Gogh had only two parts of this triptych. You can’t help wondering if he knew there was a missing third? It’s interesting to see the complete triptych of three parts in the exhibition.   

Kunichika was one of the most important 19th-century print makers in Japan. Born in Edo (present day Toyko), Kunichika was trained by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 -1865), a leading print maker of the time, and went on to be a highly original master in his own right.  

Best known for his depictions of the Kabuki theatre, capturing the drama and excitement of scenes from popular plays and famous actors, Kunichika embraced modern subjects and his prints reflected the great social and political change in Japan at the time. 

The timely exhibition will overlap with Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection at the Royal Academy this Spring. Kunichika was both a drinking companion and artistic rival of Kawanabe Kyosai (1831 -1889), an allegiance which saw Kyosai and Kunichika collaborate on at least one series of prints.  

If visitors enjoy Kunichika: Japanese Prints, we’re asking them to pay what they think is appropriate, to support our museums and art galleries. Visitor contributions enable us to offer a rich programme of exhibitions and events, supports us in caring for our priceless collections and reaching thousands of young people each year.