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~The Last Master of Actor Ukiyo-e Portraits Natori Shunsen~


The Minami-Alps Art Museum was built to spread the works of Minami-Alps native, Natori Shunsen. The man who was said to be the last master of Actor Ukiyo-e portraits. This museum houses over 1800 pieces of his work as well as research materials he used and works of a “shin-hanga” (“new prints”) creator who was active around the same as well.


The Japanese Art that took over the world: Ukiyo-e

In 1999, the American Magazine LIFE publishes a list of the 100 people who left behind the most important achievements in the last 1000 years. This list included important figures such as Thomas Edison, Christopher Columbus, Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Napoléon Bonaparte, and many others whose names are well recorded in history. Published in this list there was exactly one Japanese individual; Katsushika Hokusai.

The Ukiyo-e or Wood Block Print art style had left an immense impression on many contemporary European artists and even started up a movement within the European art world called “Japonisme”. It is said that in post-impressionism there was not a single European artist who was not influenced by Ukiyo-e out there. This all goes to show how Ukiyo-e of that era had been seen by European artists and how it had destroyed preconceptions they had, it was said that for them it was a fresh and new breath of air.


▲Katsushika Hokusai The Great Wave of Kanagawa from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mt.Fuji


Big names such as Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, and Cézanne had all famously taken influence from Ukiyo-e, however, it is said Van Gogh was the most prolific lover of Ukiyo-e. Van Gogh owned thousands of Ukiyo-e paintings and one of his works, and behind the central figure in his “Portrait of Père Tanguy,” there are countless different Ukiyo-e portraits. Ukiyo-e greatly influenced many of Van Gogh’s works and Van Gogh himself even had a great adoration towards Japan.


▲Vincent Van Gogh - Portrait of Père Tanguy

▲Visit this link to view the various Ukiyo-e prints owned by Van Gogh during his lifetime, all located within the Van Gogh museum in Holland.



Actor Portraits, the center of the Ukiyo-e world.

While Ukiyo-e had been a highly valued art form within the west, but back in Japan opinions had been very different. Rather than art, they were mainly seen as simple flyers and posters. Although there are Ukiyo-e such as Katsushika Hokusai’s landscape paintings, at the center of the Ukiyo-e world were Ukiyo-e that depicted scenes from Kabuki plays and popular actors of the time called which were called “Yakusha-e” a.k.a Actor Portraits. 



   ▲Beauty Portrait by Utamaro    


▲Actor Portrait by Sharaku


Kabuki had been a form of entertainment for the masses since the Edo Period (1603-1868) and so Ukiyo-e which depicted the stars of the shows was the modern-day equivalent of photo albums and celebrity posters.


However, in Meiji Year 29 (1896) when photography technology entered Japan, it overtook the role of Ukiyo-e and by year 30 (1897) the Ukiyo-e which had been continued for over two centuries had become out of fashion in almost an instant.



Shin-hanga: The last of Ukiyo-e

Shinbaga was a style of woodblock prints published many years later from the Taisho Period (1912-1926) into the Showa Period (1927-1989), with the goal in mind to revive the Ukiyo-e art style. Shin-hanga Ukiyo-e, unlike its predecessor, was not intended to be confined to just media prints like actor portraits, but to be a full-on art style. With this in mind, many wonderful pieces of work with techniques befitting of the modern age were produced and each piece was extremely well crafted, to say the least.

Shin-hanga was praised as a revival of Ukiyo-e abroad and was particularly popular in America where it gathered much fame. Shin-hanga pieces carried a very high sense of realism that made it hard to imagine that it was a woodblock print and with its brilliant colors and hues, pieces were easily mistaken for watercolor.



▲Meguro Fudo Temple by Kawase Hasui 


▲Michitose by Itou Shinsui

Well known figures such as Douglass McArthur, and the neurologist Sigmund Freud, in more modern days Steve Jobs and Diana, Princess of Wales were known well as Shin-hanga enthusiasts. Shin-hanga, known as the last of Ukiyo-e was an art style that whilst reviving the superb techniques of Japan’s traditional Ukiyo-e while playing up to the viewpoints of the western art world.


The work of Natori Shunsen

Natori Shunsen was born in Meiji Year 19 (1886) in the Nakakoma regions Akiho district of Yamanashi (modern-day Minami-Alps City, Ogasawara). When he was still young his family’s business fell into ruin and they decided to move to Tokyo. While living in Tokyo Natori’s appreciation for Art exponentially. From early childhood, he enjoyed drawing pictures, and by his teens, he began exhibiting sure signs of artistic genius. During his life as an ukiyo-e artist he not only drew Actor portraits (Yakusha-e), but he also drew nihon-ga (traditional Japanese style paintings), and illustrations. It is no wonder that his outstanding talent has been highly praised by researchers in recent years. Furthermore, he was also a writer who had published many stories.


As opposed to Yamato Koka who was another Ukiyo-e artist of the time, famous for the entertaining and bright expressions depicted in his Yakusha-e, Natori’s pieces had a more orthodox and realistic touch which carried a sort of unique depth to each person who viewed his works.




▲Works of Natori Shunsen



At the Minami-Alps City Art Museum, many of Natori Shunsen’s works are preserved and they occasionally hold Shin-hanga exhibitions. They also have a permanent exhibition corner for some of his works.


In recent days there has been a Shin-hanga boom with America at its center. Just as Japanese Ukiyo-e which had once inspired many contemporary European artists, hopefully, we will one day soon see the day where the Shin-hanga that incorporate traditional Ukiyo-e expressions and Western modernism will be in the limelight worldwide. Please visit the Minami Alps City Museum of Art to see the work of Natori Shunsen, the last Ukiyo-e master.



Minami Alps Art Museum

1281 Ogasahara, Minami-Alps, Yamanashi 〒400-0306

TEL 055-282-6600

Hours 9:30 am – 5 pm (Last Entry 4:30 pm )




Published on

  • April 15, 2021


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