Shôkôsai Hanbei (松好齋半兵衛) was a pupil of Ryûkôsai Jokei (active c. mid-1770s - 1809), considered the founder of the Osaka school of actor portraiture. Although we know of picture books designed by Ryûkôsai as early as 1784, his surviving single-sheet prints seem to date almost entirely from 1791-93, with at least one and probably more issued as late as 1798. These prints were primarily dispersed sheets from polyptychs in the hosoban format, and they are considered the earliest woodblock-printed, full-color, single-sheet actor prints from Osaka. Ryûkôsai developed an arresting style of portraiture with realistically articulated physiognomies partly derived from the seminal actor portraits of the 1770s-80s by the Edo artist Katsukawa Shunshô. Ryûkôsai's influence on future generations of Osaka print designers was significant and lingered for decades, even after the Utagawa-school (especially through Kunisada) began to dominate actor portraiture in Edo and introduce its stylistic approach in Osaka. It also seems likely that Ryûkôsai had some influence on the enigmatic Edo master Tôshûsai Sharaku (worked 1794-95).
Shôkôsai's biography is unknown but for a few sketchy details. As Ryûkôsai's direct successor, his actor portraiture developed on the foundation provided by his master's style of nigao-e (likeness pictures: 似顔絵). Shôkôsai's earliest confirmed print appears to date from 5/1795, although an unsigned portrait dated 4/1794 has been attributed to him. He may have designed the earliest single-sheet chûban-format prints in Osaka, publishing two designs in 9/1799. Shôkôsai designed the first color-printed picture book of actors in Osaka, the Ehon futaba aoi (Picture book: Double-leafed hollyhock, 2 vols., 1798), depicting scenes from kabuki plays performed between 1793 and 1798. Another of his admired picture books is the Ehon santô yakusha masukagami (Picture book: A brilliant mirror of actors in the three cities), published in 1806. He also illustrated eight e-iri nehon (kabuki playbooks: 絵入根本) between 1801 and 1809, establishing an Osaka genre that lasted until the 1860s. Shôkôsai's legacy includes his teaching Hokushû Shunkôsai (active c. 1806-1832), arguably the most significant master in the next generation of Osaka artists.
In this sensitive double portrait, Shôkôsai depicted one superstar actor, Onoe Shinshichi I, and a young rising star, Kanô Minshi I.
The Edo-born actor Onoe Shinshichi I (1745-1809) was a pupil of Onoe Kikugorô I (1717-83). Despite being short of stature, he was said to have great stage presence, becoming a top tachiyaku (lit., standing man, i.e., a leading-man actor: 立役) and rising steadily in the rankings published in Kamigata hyôbanki (evaluation books, i.e., actor critiques: 評判記). He made his stage debut at the age of 10 as Onoe Sanosuke. In 1760 he took the name Onoe Harugorô, and in 1764 he relocated to Osaka, where in November of that year he became Onoe Shichisaburô. In 1766 he assumed the name Onoe Shinshichi I at the Minamigawa no Shibai in Kyoto, after which he spent 11 seasons in that city, until his return to Osaka in the fall of 1777. By 1783, his ranking in Osaka's hyôbanki in the tachiyaku section was jô-jô-kichi (lit. "high-high-good fortune," i.e., top-superior-excellent), and in January 1788 he had risen to shi-jô-jô-kichi (unique-top-superior-excellent). He left once again for Kyoto in June 1794, and in January 1796 his ranking was hakudai-jô-jô-kichi (nearly grand-top-superior-excellent). By November, his took the stage name Onoe Koisaburô I. At the start of 1799, his ranking was dai-jô-jô-kichi (grand-top-superior-excellent), and in January 1802 shin-jô-jô-kichi (truly-top-superior-excellent). That same year, he performed an isse ichidai ("once in a lifetime": 一世一代) performance for his retirement, taking the name Nanbuya Magobei and opening a face-powder shop in the Gion (祇園) district of Kyoto. He returned to the stage in March 1804 as Koisaburô at the Naka no shibai in Osaka. He continued acting until, back in Kyoto at the Kitagawa no shibai for his final performance in March 1807, he fell ill and retired for good. He died on March 9, 1809.
Kanô Minshi (1783-1826), son of the great Kamigata actor Arashi Koroku III (1741-96; earlier called Kanô Hinasuke; poetry name Minshi). He specialized in wakaonnagata (young women: 若女方) roles. He made his stage debut at the age of 12 (January 1795) as Arashi Iwajirô. In January 1797 he changed his stage name to Arashi San'emon VIII. He moved to Kyoto in November 1801 and took the name Kanô Minshi I (using his father's haigô, or literary name). Minshi performed thereafter in Kyoto until returning to Osaka in 1816, taking the name Arashi Koroku IV (honoring his father's final stage name) in November 1817. The following year his ranking in the hyôbanki was jô-jô-kichi, and by January 1824 it had risen to dai-jô-jô-kichi.
As far as we can determine, this is a mitate-e (analogue picture: 見立) portraying actors unconnected with a specific stage performance. Paintings by Shôkôsai are scarce and almost never encountered on the open market. The painting is accompanied by a new, high-quality storage box with a thick paulownia clamping roller (to wrap the painting around) before placement in the box.
References: KHO, pp. nos. 18-38 (for Ryûkôsai) and 70--71, 73-74, 79, 83-84, 86-93 (for Shôkôsai; esp. #86 for similar painting)