Utagawa Toyokuni II (二代 歌川豊國 1777–1835 ), also known as Toyoshige (豊重), was a pupil, son-in-law, and adopted son of Toyokuni I (1769-1825). He used the name Toyoshige until 1826, when the family then gave him the right to use his deceased teacher's name and he began signing his work Toyokuni (豊國). Nearly a decade after Toyokuni II's death, Utagawa Kunisada began using the Toyokuni name in 1844, but to complicate matters, he never recognized Toyoshige's right to the second-generation name and so referred to himself as Toyokuni II (Kunisada aratame nidai Toyokuni: Kunisada changing to Toyokuni II). However, today Kunisada is referred to as Utagawa Toyokuni III (三代 歌川豊國).
Sumô (ôzumô) as an occupation developed in the Tokugawa period, from which time the modern-day sport takes most of its rules and rituals. Wrestlers were portrayed in ukiyo-e during ceremonies or matches and, as in our example, outside of the sumô ring (a favorite pictorial variant in Edo was the pairing of beautiful young women with gargantuan wrestlers). The center of the sumô world was located in Edo, whereas, in Osaka, high-level professional sumô tournaments were not to be found. Instead, young men would train there, and if they showed promise, were shipped off to Edo. (A comparison with modern-day farm teams in baseball would not be inappropriate.)
Toyokuni II designed very few sumô portraits, which were published by Eijudô in 1831. Curiously, these rarities all have synthetic Prussian [Berlin] blue (bero-ai: ベロ藍) pigments (iron oxide, an iron blue or dark-blue chrystalline salt; ferric ferrocyanide; first synthesized in 1704), marking them as among the earlier examples using the imported pigment. Very limited use of bero-ai in ukiyo-e prints seems to have taken place beginning around 1822-23, and all-blue prints (aizuri-e: 藍摺絵) did not appear until 1829. So the vogue for using this pigment was relatively new when Toyokuni II's sumô examples were published.
The wrestler Yuranoumi Kaigorô (由良海楫五郎) was a middle-ranking rikishi (wrestler: 力士), one of the few wrestlers to have his portrait done by both Kunisada and Toyoshige. He wears two swords in the samurai manner — a privilege accorded certain wrestlers during the Edo period. As was the custom in ukiyo-e, the hulking wrestler nearly fills the sheet.
The colors on this impression are quite fine, especially the purple for the stripes of the robe. The use of bero-ai shading along the top confirms that the publisher expected sufficient sales of this print design to offset ther cost of a pigment that was still expensive at the time. No doubt, the popularity of the artist Toyokuni II and the wrestler Yuranoumi Kaigorô warranted this assumption. Thus we offer a rare opportunity to acquire a sumô print by Toyokuni II in excellent condition.s
References: Lawrence Bickford, Sumo and the Woodblock Print Masters. Kodansha: 1994, fig. 84)