At this stage I'm not quite sure why I'm doing this, apart from my fascination with Kuniyoshi's prints and this series in particular. I always wanted original prints for this series, and the more I delved into learning all I could, the harder I realised it was going to be to establish which were 1st editions, later editions, states, reprints etc. To this end I have aligned my thinking with that produced by John Fiorillo on his fantastic site. Veiwing Japanese prints - FAQ's.
There has been no universally consistent use of the terms "edition," "state," or "impression." Some writers have used "edition" and "state" synonymously, others have not. I would suggest the following definitions:
* ‘State’: a design produced from a particular set or configuration of woodblocks. When key blocks or color blocks are altered, eliminated, or added to print a design, such changes constitute different states. Thus a new state would depend on the publisher to remove one or more blocks from the set or the woodblock cutter to either alter existing blocks or add new ones.‘Edition’: a design with particular printing characteristics within a state, that is, the changes would be attributable to printing differences from the same woodblocks, not from changes in, additions to, or eliminations of any of the blocks. A different edition would therefore be the result of the block printers using different colors or eliminating or adding special techniques (such as overprinting of colors, metallic pigments, blind-printing, or shaded colorations).
* ‘Impression’: a print from either a given state or edition that is distinguished by its overall quality. For example, an early ‘impression’ would have sharp, clear key block lines, a middle impression would show some wear to these lines, and a late impression would suffer from worn, weakened lines (see Block Wear). Thus an "impression" designates the quality of a given print, not whether it is part from a particular state or edition.
For an example of a deluxe early edition and a reprinted commercial edition of the same state, see Enjaku Editions. It is not always easy to determine how many color blocks were used for a given state, especially as ukiyo-e printmaking became more and more complex with multiple overprintings and mixtures of colors. We will also probably never know for certain how many editions were issued for many ukiyo-e prints or, for the vast majority of ukiyo-e print designs, how many impressions were made within a given edition. Attempting to judge the number of impressions on the basis of block wear alone is very difficult because we do not know the history of the progression of wear. Damage or noticeable wear might have occurred fairly early in the life of the blocks, even if they were used for only small numbers of impressions, or instead over long periods of time for large numbers of editions and impressions. Establishing a timeline for block wear to assist us in the identification (not to mention dating) of editions seems nearly impossible. Certain designs or series were immensely popular and were printed in thousands of impressions over many years. For example, how can we possibly identify which impressions belong to which editions of Hiroshige's 1855 series 'Gojűsan tsugi meisho zue' ("Famous views of the fifty-three stations," the so-called "Upright Tokaidô" set) , which is said to have been periodically re-published from the original blocks until the 1880s? ©1999-2001 by John Fiorillo
To explain the difficulty, it may be worth referring to comments made by Robinson and Weinberg. In Basil W. Robinson book Kuniyoshi The Warrior Prints he states; "This series proved immensely popular (many poor late reprints are encountered)..." And Weinberg in his book Kuniyoshi The Faithful Samurai states; "Of all these prints, Seichu gishi den, the series to which this book is devoted, remained the most popular. It was printed and reprinted till the blocks were worn out, ....."
This explains why there are many poor examples to be found floating around with indistinct key block lines, poor colour registration, and generally careless printing. To this end the comparison here is not about judging print or impression quality, but to try and discover variations in key block lines, colours, and therefore possible states and editions. Potentially an impossible task however the journey always begins with the first step....and this is it!
The only writings I have found suggesting that there is a school of thought supporting the existance of 2 separate editions (states) of these prints was located in Heros and Ghosts Japanese prints by Kuniyoshi. The book, written by Robert Schaap, states; "Sheets from this series are known in two editions (I would call 'states'): one with and without numeration and having slightly variant publisher's seals. Similar to several other numbered and unnumbered series, it is difficult to say with certainty which edition (state) was released first as both exist in carefully and carelessly printed versions. The unnumbered set is still thought, however, to be the first."
Weinberg also states; "In some editions, perhaps the earliest, the prints are not numbered....."
Robinson simply states; "most impressions numbered 1-50..."
The number of extant numbered prints compared to unnumbered prints on the market may support these positions. Generally, from what I have seen, an unnumbered print bares only the publishers trade mark lozenge i.e there is no accompanying seal, the exception to this so far is print number 1.9, it exists with publishers seal in both a 'numbered' and 'unnumbered' state.
So in a sense there is nothing definitive regarding states or editions. I'm going to look at a number of prints in the series that I have found with more interesting variations, and see if I can come up with some conclusions of my own, hopefully learning more about this series as I go. Firstly though, I'm going to explore the colours of the pigments used in general during the early - mid 19th century, and the expected effects of fading on these. This can then be used as a guide when researching the Ronin prints.
Compared Prints - legend
Big - William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 1911 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)
CFA - Dealer in California
FA - Online auction house
R Thom - My own prints
RG - Dealer in NY
TM - Edo Tokyo Museum
Art L - Online auction house
SHG - Online Gallery/dealer
Comparison topics and prints
Colours and fading
For information or questions mail to: email@example.com
Kuniyoshi's 47 Ronin a comparison