Print artists occasionally designed compositions that showed a beauty or an actor from behind with their face visible in a mirror. Sometimes the face in the mirror was of a figure not otherwise visible in the print. Artists also experimented with designs that consisted of no more than a mirror with a face reflected in it. The latter format appealed to Kunisada, who used it for the first time in the early 1820s for a distinguished set of beauties reflected in round hand mirrors.
In the late 1820s he applied the format to actor portraiture for the first time to produce an untitled set of over forty portraits, each reflected in a round mirror resting in a lacquer case. This was his largest set of actor portraits before the late 1840s. In addition to the leading actors of the day, he included many lesser performers in it. On each print a poem from the actors brush is inscribed above the mirror.
Kunisada returned to the format in the late 1840s with a set entitled A Mirror of Past and Present Examples of Loyalty and Filial Piety. The continuing force of the restrictive regulations issued in 1842 was responsible for the self-justifying title and for the absence of actors names on the prints in this set. Instead of actors poems, the set title and the heroic role in which each actor is depicted are emblazoned across the top of each design.
Kunisada employed the round-mirror format for actor portraits for a third time in the late 1850s. The title of this set Up-to-date Padded Pictures in Mirrors (Imayō oshi-e kagami) is given in a tinted rectangular box, as is the role in which each actor is depicted.
Although the actors are not named, their poems are inscribed across the top of the print. As an added embellishment, the ground is scattered with small squares of yellow to suggest expensive gold-flecked paper.
Organised for Japan 2001
The Fitzwilliam Museum is especially grateful to John Carpenter, Tim Clark, Paul M. Griffith, Hideyuki Iwata and Ellis Tinios for their generous help during the preparation of this exhibition.
Funded by Japan 2001