The son of an Edo bookseller by the name of either Seki or Sekiguchi, Kiyonaga came to study under Torii Kiyomitsu, and in 1785 succeeded his master as head of the Torii school. His work came at a time when trends favored larger figures, and a degree of realism and naturalism. Though he was hardly the first to depict kabuki scenes as stage scenes, featuring actors in a stage set, rather than as 'real' scenes featuring characters in a real setting, Kiyonaga made this approach far more standard and central to his style. Stage sets and costumes began to be portrayed as more artificial, and therefore, by a twist, more realistic as depictions of the stage.
This focus on naturalism came out in his bijinga as well. His courtesans and geisha are less willowy and graceful than those of Suzuki Harunobu, with fuller figures, representing perhaps a less stylized, more realistic representation of women. He also made extensive use of background scenes of sites in Edo or other cities, some which experimented with Western-style one-point perspective. These depictions of buildings, bridges, and the like represented a dramatic change from the solid color backgrounds of Harunobu, or the often blank backgrounds of earlier works. Kiyonaga also made extensive use of diptych and triptych forms, perfecting their use in forming larger scenes, rather than simply pairing up or contrasting largely separate scenes. All of these were produced primarily before his succession to leadership of the Torii school; after 1787, he turned his attention primarily to actor prints.
He is also known for his shunga, which comprised a fair portion of his output, as they did for most ukiyo-e artists.
Towards the end of his life, Kiyonaga turned to his duties to the school, focusing his attentions on painting billboard advertisements for the kabuki theatres, and training his successor, Kiyomitsu's grandson, Torii Kiyomine; Kiyonaga had, since becoming head of the school, pushed his own son to not become an artist, thus seeking to avoid disputes about succession after his own (Kiyonaga's) death. After 1800, he all but stopped producing commercial paintings and print designs entirely, producing only private works for his own enjoyment and that of his close friends.
- Lane, Richard. Images from the Floating World. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1978. pp130-134.
- Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. p284.