The son of a silk-dyer, at the age of fourteen Kuniyoshi joined the Utagawa school, then headed by Toyokuni I. Kuniyoshi achieved his commercial and artistic breakthrough in 1827 with the first designs of the series the 108 heroes of the Suikoden. This series, based on an old Chinese novel from the 14th century, was about rebels and bandits. The artist designed many other successful prints of warriors and heroes and was even nicknamed Warrior print Kuniyoshi, but in fact he contributed to every branch of Ukiyo-e: theatrical prints, legendary and historical subjects, women, landscapes, comics, surimono, fan-prints and book-illustrations.
By far the largest body of surviving preparatory drawings for Japanese prints is formed by the brush work of Kuniyoshi. Most of the Kuniyoshi's drawings seem to have survived because they were initially mounted in albums, possibly to serve the dual purpose of providing teaching material for his many pupils and functioning as an aide-mémoire for earlier representation of certain subjects. The general consensus seems to be that the albums were first brought to the West by the Parisian art dealer S. Bing. Two of the albums were bought directly from Bing by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1889. Eight others were reportedly in the collection of Mr. Thomas Stauffer of Chicago as late as in the 1960s. The other albums all seem to have taken apart and dispersed. Many of them were acquired by the Parisian collector Emile Javal. From there, many were acquired by the Dutch collector Ferdinand Lieftinck. The Lieftinck collection of drawings was purchased in 1958 by the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden. See Matthi Forrer, Drawings by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the collection of the National Museum of Ethnology Leiden, catalogue of the exhibition, The Hague, 1988.