The Twelve Months at Home
The Twelve Months at Home (Juni tsuki no uchi) is a series of woodblock prints (oban triptychs) designed in 1854 by Utagawa Toyokuni III (1786-1865), also known as Kunisada I. This brilliantly colored cycle portrays courtesans in an unusual role, showing them performing various daily domestic activities during the course of the year.
The complexity of pattern and bright colors typical of Toyokuni III's style evolved under the strong influence of the later works of Toyokuni I (1769-1825), his teacher whose name he adopted in 1844. Toyokuni I, active during the height of the Edo Period (1615-1868), explored stylized figural forms by employing the hard outlines of the ink brush as well as a dramatic manipulation of a restricted pallette of subtle colors. It was not uncommon for a student to repeat subjects already worked by a master, and the Twelve Months at Home on display here is undoubtedly under the influence of an earlier Twelve Months by Toyokuni I. Abandoning his teacher's academic concerns, Toyokuni III in his prints began to experiment with stern influences by integrating realistic elements with the artificial conventions of the ukiyo-e medium.
Though popular in his own time, Toyokuni III until recently was criticized by scholars for bowing to commercial pressures, and his use of dense patterning and highly keyed contrasting colors have been dismissed as a product of supply and demand. However, these prints reveal that his powers of invention rarely flagged under the self-imposed constraints of complex compositions, and the intricately balanced relationship of elaborate kimono patterns seen in the scenes depicting the fifth and sixth months demonstate his ability to solve the problems of this format.
The changing role of the courtesan seen here reflects the broader social trends in operation as the Edo period came to a close. With the pleasure-loving spirit of the age dwindling, no longer was she characterized in prints as the wispy, childlike source of pleasure known from earlier days, but instead was depicted as both bold and full-bodied, engaged, as in the twelfth month, in the daily routine of the household.