Among the very small corpus of surviving Osaka ukiyo-e paintings are works by students or followers of master artists. Often these studies were closely modeled after published woodblock prints. So it is with the painting on paper that we offer here. It is an unusual example, however, for its size, composition, and multiple sources. The purpose of emulating a master or teacher was to hone one's technical skills and learn how to apply the compositional principles espoused by the master and his school or workshop. Copies therefore typically retained the formats and sizes of the originals. With the present example, however, an unknown artist has combined three theatrical portraits into one large composition, and he has taken for his inspiration two prints by Hirosada and one by Seisai.
This composition takes three published print images and places them against what appears to be part of a kimono design. The superimposition of one actor's image over the remaining two, which in turn are slightly misaligned, results in a visually arresting and most unusual work. Rarely would an artist partially block out the faces of two actors in this manner, for an accurate physiognomy was, after all, the essential aspect of nigao (actor likeness: 似顔) in ukiyo-e. Still, nearly all of the faces are visible and the actors easily identified. Each of the three portraits bears a Hirosada signature, and indeed, originals of the middle and lower designs were drawn by that prolific Osaka master. The top actor, however, was based on a print by the Kyoto artist Seisai (星齋 family name Suzuki). Why the artist would afix a Hirosada signature to a Seisai design is unknown.
The top image shows Seisai's portrait of Mimasu Daigorô in Karigane mon gonin otoko (Karigane’s crest and five chivalrous men: 雁金紋五人男). The middle image is a reprise of Hirosada's print for the play Katsuragawa renri no shigaragami (Union by the weir at the Katsura River: 桂川連理柵) from his series Chûkô kijinden (Stories of remarkable loyalty and filial piety: 忠孝奇人伝). The bottom image is from a depiction by Hirosada for the play Keisei shinobazugaike (けいせい忍術池) and the series Chûkô buyûden (Tales of courage, loyalty, and filial piety: 忠孝武勇伝). These print or series labels amounted to bit of transparent camouflage — no one, including government censors, was fooled into thinking that such images were anything but actor prints; still, the gesture helped satisfy the letter of the law. Note, too, that the actor's name is not given on the print, a small price to pay to skirt penalties, as ukiyo-e patrons knew the physiognomies of the actors and were intimately familiar with current stage productions.
References: IKBYS-IV, no. 56 (right sheet of diptych), no. 86 (middle sheet of triptych);