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Edo Celebrities

The prints featured in The Printer’s Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection showcase the innovative approaches artists developed to represent the celebrities of Edo’s entertainment and pleasure districts.
Street scenes, full-length depictions, close-up portraits (a trend that began in the late 1780s), and behind-the-scenes glimpses offer viewers an imagined window into the world inhabited by popular actors and courtesans. Promoting and celebrating these stars was central to the work of print publishers and designers, who strove to depict the latest upcoming productions and entertainment trends.

The actor Ichikawa Danzo IV in a Shibaraku role
The actor Ichikawa Danzo IV in a Shibaraku role, by Katsukawa Shunsho (1726–1792). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection, 2005.100.49.
As new theatrical productions opened, publishers released prints of the actors in bold costumes and dramatic makeup. Theater fans could instantly recognize their favorite stars by looking at the crests or logos—a mark of their acting lineage—on the player’s sleeves. Like actors, highly ranked courtesans were local celebrities, and the subject of countless Edo-period prints. With their emphasis on attractive features and stylish attire, prints of courtesans appealed not only to men throughout the city, but also acted as fashion guides for many urban women.