Shinsui was born with the name of Ito Hajime to a middle-class Tokyo family. At the age of ten, young Hajime was forced to leave school and find work. He found employment at the Tokyo Printing Company where he began to show serious interest and talent in Nihonga, Japanese-style painting.
In 1911, Hajime was given an apprenticeship in the drawing department of the Printing Company. Soon afterwards he was introduced to Kaburagi Kiyokata, the renowned painter, and became Kiyokata's student. It was Kiyokata that gave Hajime his artist's name, Shinsui. It was not long before his paintings were included in public exhibitions. In 1912 his painting was first shown by the Tatsumi gakai ('Southeast Painting Society') and later works were displayed by the Kyodokai ('Homeland Society'), the Nihon bijutsuin ('Japan art institute'), and in the government sponsored Bunten show.
When Shinsui was eighteen years old, his paintings were seen by the publisher WatanabelShozaburo at an exhibition at Kiyokata's art school. Watanabe was especially interested in creating a woodblock print from Shinsui's painting Taikyo ('Before the mirror'). He obtained an introduction with Shinsui's teacher Kiyokata and asked for his permission to attempt this experimental print. Permission was granted.
Shinsui's first print, ‘Behind the Mirror’ depicts a young woman wearing a deep red kimono under-robe looking off into an unseen mirror. Instead of using the harsh aniline red so common in Meiji-era prints, Watanabe decided to use a natural vegetable dye to print the red garment. It was necessary to print the robe several times to achieve a rich crimson color. Special care was also taken printing the background, a speckled gray texture that contrasted with the deep expanses of red garment, black hair, and ivory skin. The final effect was simple and spectacular. Watanabe was completely satisfied and began selling the print, even though it was marked as experimental.
Shinsui continued to work with Watanabe from 1916 to 1960, designing both bijin-ga and landscape prints. He also worked with the publishers Isetatsu, the Yomiuri Newspaper Company, and Katsumura. In the later years of his life, he concentrated on painting. He was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun in 1970.
Excerpted from www.hanga.com/bijin-ga/shinsui/