Toshusai Sharaku Biography

Toshusai Sharaku




No concrete information exists on the 18th-century artist Toshusai Sharaku, whose known artistic output appears to have been created in just ten months at the end of the 18th century. Despite a keen technical proficiency and talent for the color woodblock medium, his work - a series of 145 portraits of Japanese Noh actors - appears to have been considered offensive to the theater-going public of Edo. After first finding his work highly engaging and placing it among the ranks of the most popular portraits in Edo, Sharaku's increasingly realistic portrayals of emotion were soon seen as deeply unflattering of the actors. As suddenly as it appeared on the Edo art market in 1794, Sharaku's output ended in 1795.

Because of the controversial nature of the work, coupled with its proficiency and the wildly brief pocket of time in which the public was exposed to it, stories arose as to who its creator could have been. Over time there were several theories that, ironically, only bolstered the lore of the work than to relegate it to the annals of forgotten artworks. Among these theories, it was posited that there was no singular artist but a group of artists working under one name; or, that it was an already established and well respected artist who worked under a pseudonym to protect his identity.

Interestingly, the most plausible identification of the Sharku, theorized by the Japanese historian Saito Gesshin in 1844, was almost entirely overlooked for over a century. According to his research, Sharaku was a Noh actor named Saito Jurobei who traveled with the troupe of Lord Awa. He noted that at one point Lord Awa left on business, with Jurobei staying behind. The dates of Awa's travels almost perfectly coincided with Sharaku's output, suggesting that the actor found an opportunity to create something he could not when Lord Awa was present. As noted by Roger Keyes in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue for a Sharaku show at the Tobu Museum of Art (October 26 to December 10, 1995): "In 1844, fifty years after Sharaku's prints appeared, Saito Gesshin, a historian in Edo, added a note in his manuscript of biographies of ukiyo-e artist (Ukiyo-e Ruiko) saying that Sharaku was Saito Jurobei, a Noh theater actor in the service of the Lord of Awa.

"It has been proven that an actor named Saito Jurobei did serve the Lord of Awa and did reside for some time in Edo, but his link with Sharaku is still unproven. Because of this uncertainty, many theories have been developed over the years to find the identity of Sharaku. With such a brief career and little known about him, many theories have been proposed with more or less convincing clues to show that Sharaku was a professional Edo artist, perhaps Hokusai, Toyokuni, Kiyomasa, Utamaro, or even Tsutaya Juzaburo, the publisher.

"Nonetheless, as explained by prof Keyes, 'we may never know for certain whether or not Sharaku was the Noh actor Saito Jurobei, but it is an interesting fact that the Lord of Awa was absent from Edo (-hence the Noh actor unoccupied-) from the 21st day of the fourth month of 1794 through the 2nd day of the fourth month of 1796, exactly the period when Sharaku's surviving work appear'."

A turning point came for Sharaku's place in the art world when, in 1910, when German collector Julius Kurth published a monograph of the portraits. Unlike previous art critics, he wrote favorably of the realism shown in the Edo-period Noh theater portrait work, which was otherwise staid and intentionally flattering to actors when created by other popular ukiyo-e artists. Kurth's publication brought Sharaku's work into the Western world of Japanese print collection and, due to its scarcity, unusual style, and mysterious history, his original prints remain highly coveted.

Find an in-depth overview of Toshusai Sharaku's work and the many theories of his identity at