Ukiyo-e[a] is a genre of
Japanese art which flourished from the 17th
through 19th centuries. Its artists produced woodblock prints and
paintings of such subjects as female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo
wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and
landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica. The term ukiyo-e (浮世絵)
translates as "picture[s] of the floating world".
Edo (modern Tokyo) became the seat of government for the military
dictatorship in the early 17th century. The merchant class at the
bottom of the social order benefited most from the city's rapid
economic growth. Many indulged in the entertainments of kabuki
theatre, courtesans, and geisha of the pleasure districts. The term
ukiyo ("floating world") came to describe this hedonistic lifestyle.
Printed or painted ukiyo-e images of this environment emerged in the
late 17th century and were popular with the merchant class, who had
become wealthy enough to afford to decorate their homes with them.
The earliest success was in the 1670s with Moronobu's paintings and
monochromatic prints of beautiful women. Colour in prints came
gradually—at first added by hand for special commissions. By the
1740s, artists such as Masanobu used multiple woodblocks to print
areas of colour. From the 1760s the success of Harunobu's "brocade
prints" led to full-colour production becoming standard, each print
made with numerous blocks. Specialists have prized the portraits of
beauties and actors by masters such as Kiyonaga, Utamaro, and Sharaku
that came in the late 18th century. In the 19th century followed a
pair of masters best remembered for their landscapes: the bold
formalist Hokusai, whose Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the
best-known works of Japanese art; and the serene, atmospheric
Hiroshige, most noted for his series The Fifty-three Stations of the
Tōkaidō. Following the deaths of these two masters, and against the
technological and social modernization that followed the Meiji
Restoration of 1868, ukiyo-e production went into steep decline.
Some ukiyo-e artists specialized in making paintings, but most works
were prints. Artists rarely carved their own woodblocks for printing;
rather, production was divided between the artist, who designed the
prints; the carver, who cut the woodblocks; the printer, who inked and
pressed the woodblocks onto hand-made paper; and the publisher, who
financed, promoted, and distributed the works. As printing was done by
hand, printers were able to achieve effects impractical with machines,
such as the blending or gradation of colours on the printing block.
Ukiyo-e was central to forming the West's perception of Japanese art
in the late 19th century–especially the landscapes of
Hiroshige. From the 1870s
Japonism became a prominent trend and had a
strong influence on the early Impressionists such as Degas, Manet, and
Monet, as well as Post-Impressionists such as van Gogh and Art Nouveau
artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec. The 20th century saw a revival in
Japanese printmaking: the shin-hanga ("new prints") genre capitalized
on Western interest in prints of traditional Japanese scenes, and the
sōsaku-hanga ("creative prints") movement promoted individualist
works designed, carved, and printed by a single artist. Prints since
the late 20th century have continued in an individualist vein, often
made with techniques imported from the West.
1.2 Emergence of ukiyo-e (late 17th – early 18th centuries)
1.3 Colour prints (mid-18th century)
1.4 Peak period (late 18th century)
1.5 Late flowering: flora, fauna, and landscapes (19th century)
1.6 Decline (late 19th century)
1.7 Introduction to the West
1.8 Descendant traditions (20th century)
2.1 Themes and genres
3.2 Print production
3.2.1 Colour print production
4 Criticism and historiography
5 Collection and preservation
6 See also
8.1 Works cited
8.1.1 Academic journals
9 Further reading
10 External links
Japanese art since the
Heian period (794–1185) had followed two
principal paths: the nativist
Yamato-e tradition, focusing on Japanese
themes, best known by the works of the Tosa school; and
Chinese-inspired kara-e in a variety of styles, such as the
monochromatic ink wash painting of
Sesshū Tōyō and his disciples.
Kanō school of painting incorporated features of both.
Japanese art had found patrons in the aristocracy,
military governments, and religious authorities. Until the 16th
century, the lives of the common people had not been a main subject of
painting, and even when they were included, the works were luxury
items made for the ruling samurai and rich merchant classes. Later
works appeared by and for townspeople, including inexpensive
monochromatic paintings of female beauties and scenes of the theatre
and pleasure districts. The hand-produced nature of these shikomi-e[b]
limited the scale of their production, a limit that was soon overcome
by genres that turned to mass-produced woodblock printing.
Maple Viewing at Takao (mid-16th century) by
Kanō Hideyori is one of
the earliest Japanese paintings to feature the lives of the common
During a prolonged period of civil war in the 16th century, a class of
politically powerful merchants had developed. These
machishū (ja)[c] allied themselves with the court and had power
over local communities; their patronage of the arts encouraged a
revival in the classical arts in the late 16th and early 17th
centuries. In the early 17th century
Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616)
unified the country and was appointed shōgun with supreme power over
Japan. He consolidated his government in the village of
Tokyo), and required the territorial lords to assemble there in
alternate years with their entourages. The demands of the growing
capital drew many male labourers from the country, so that males came
to make up nearly seventy percent of the population. The village
grew during the
Edo period (1603–1867) from a population of 1800 to
over a million in the 19th century.
The centralized shogunate put an end to the power of the machishū and
divided the population into four social classes, with the ruling
samurai class at the top and the merchant class at the bottom. While
deprived of their political influence, those of the merchant class
most benefited from the rapidly expanding economy of the Edo
period, and their improved lot allowed for leisure that many sought
in the pleasure districts—in particular
Yoshiwara in Edo—and
collecting artworks to decorate their homes, which in earlier times
had been well beyond their financial means. The experience of the
pleasure quarters was open to those of sufficient wealth, manners, and
Tokugawa Ieyasu established his government in the early 17th century
Edo (modern Tokyo).
Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu,
Kanō school painting, Kanō Tan'yū,
Woodblock printing in Japan traces back to the
Hyakumantō Darani in
770 CE. Until the 17th century such printing was reserved for
Buddhist seals and images.
Movable type appeared around 1600, but
Japanese writing system
Japanese writing system required about 100,000 type pieces,
hand-carving text onto woodblocks was more efficient. In Saga Domain,
Honami Kōetsu and publisher Suminokura Soan (ja)
combined printed text and images in an adaptation of The Tales of Ise
(1608) and other works of literature. During the
(1624–1643) illustrated books of folk tales called tanrokubon, or
"orange-green books", were the first books mass-produced using
woodblock printing. Woodblock imagery continued to evolve as
illustrations to the kanazōshi genre of tales of hedonistic urban
life in the new capital. The rebuilding of
Edo following the Great
Fire of Meireki in 1657 occasioned a modernization of the city, and
the publication of illustrated printed books flourished in the rapidly
The term "ukiyo",[d] which can be translated as "floating world", was
homophonous with an ancient Buddhist term signifying "this world of
sorrow and grief".[e] The newer term at times was used to mean
"erotic" or "stylish", among other meanings, and came to describe the
hedonistic spirit of the time for the lower classes. Asai Ryōi
celebrated this spirit in the novel
Ukiyo Monogatari ("Tales of the
Floating World", c. 1661):
"living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry
blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and
diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of
imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along
with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo."
Emergence of ukiyo-e (late 17th – early 18th centuries)
The earliest ukiyo-e artists came from the world of Japanese
Yamato-e painting of the 17th century had developed a
style of outlined forms which allowed inks to be dripped on a wet
surface and spread out towards the outlines—this outlining of forms
was to become the dominant style of ukiyo-e.
Hikone screen may be the oldest surviving ukiyo-e work, dating to
Around 1661, painted hanging scrolls known as Portraits of Kanbun
Beauties gained popularity. The paintings of the Kanbun era
(1661–73), most of which are anonymous, marked the beginnings of
ukiyo-e as an independent school. The paintings of Iwasa Matabei
(1578–1650) have a great affinity with ukiyo-e paintings. Scholars
disagree whether Matabei's work itself is ukiyo-e; assertions that
he was the genre's founder are especially common amongst Japanese
researchers. At times Matabei has been credited as the artist of
the unsigned Hikone screen, a byōbu folding screen that may be
one of the earliest surviving ukiyo-e works. The screen is in a
refined Kanō style and depicts contemporary life, rather than the
prescribed subjects of the painterly schools.
Early woodblock print, Hishikawa Moronobu, late 1670s or early 1680s
In response to the increasing demand for ukiyo-e works, Hishikawa
Moronobu (1618–1694) produced the first ukiyo-e woodblock
prints. By 1672, Moronobu's success was such that he began to sign
his work—the first of the book illustrators to do so. He was a
prolific illustrator who worked in a wide variety of genres, and
developed an influential style of portraying female beauties. Most
significantly, he began to produce illustrations, not just for books,
but as single-sheet images, which could stand alone or be used as part
of a series. The Hishikawa school attracted a large number of
followers, as well as imitators such as Sugimura Jihei, and
signalled the beginning of the popularization of a new artform.
Torii Kiyonobu I and
Kaigetsudō Ando became prominent emulators
of Moronobu's style following the master's death, though neither was a
member of the Hishikawa school. Both discarded background detail in
favour of focus on the human figure—kabuki actors in the yakusha-e
of Kiyonobu and the
Torii school that followed him, and courtesans
in the bijin-ga of Ando and his Kaigetsudō school. Ando and his
followers produced a stereotyped female image whose design and pose
lent itself to effective mass production, and its popularity
created a demand for paintings that other artists and schools took
advantage of. The
Kaigetsudō school and its popular "Kaigetsudō
beauty" ended after Ando's exile over his role in the Ejima-Ikushima
scandal of 1714.
Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671–1750) painted technically
refined pictures of courtesans. Considered a master of erotic
portraits, he was the subject of a government ban in 1722, though it
is believed he continued to create works that circulated under
different names. Sukenobu spent most of his career in Edo, and his
influence was considerable in both the Kantō and Kansai regions.
The paintings of
Miyagawa Chōshun (1683–1752) portrayed early
18th-century life in delicate colours. Chōshun made no prints.
The Miyagawa school he founded in the early-18th century specialized
in romantic paintings in a style more refined in line and colour than
the Kaigetsudō school. Chōshun allowed greater expressive freedom in
his adherents, a group that later included Hokusai.
Early ukiyo-e masters
Standing portrait of a courtesan
Ink and colour painting on silk, Kaigetsudō Ando, c. 1705–10
Portrait of actors
Printed page from Asakayama E-hon
Ryukyuan Dancer and Musicians
Ink and color painting on silk, Chōshun, c. 1718
Colour prints (mid-18th century)
Even in the earliest monochromatic prints and books, colour was added
by hand for special commissions. Demand for colour in the early-18th
century was met with tan-e[f] prints hand-tinted with orange and
sometimes green or yellow. These were followed in the 1720s with a
vogue for pink-tinted beni-e[g] and later the lacquer-like ink of the
urushi-e. In 1744, the benizuri-e were the first successes in colour
printing, using multiple woodblocks—one for each colour, the
earliest beni pink and vegetable green.
Western-style graphical perspective and increased use of printed
colour were amongst the innovations
Okumura Masanobu claimed.
Taking the Evening Cool by Ryōgoku Bridge, c. 1745
A great self-promoter,
Okumura Masanobu (1686–1764) played a major
role during the period of rapid technical development in printing from
the late 17th to mid-18th centuries. He established a shop in
1707 and combined elements of the leading contemporary schools in
a wide array of genres, though Masanobu himself belonged to no school.
Amongst the innovations in his romantic, lyrical images were the
introduction of geometrical perspective in the uki-e genre[h] in the
1740s; the long, narrow hashira-e prints; and the combination of
graphics and literature in prints that included self-penned haiku
Ukiyo-e reached a peak in the late 18th century with the advent of
full-colour prints, developed after
Edo returned to prosperity under
Tanuma Okitsugu following a long depression. These popular colour
prints came to be called nishiki-e, or "brocade pictures", as their
brilliant colours seemed to bear resemblance to imported Chinese
Shuchiang brocades, known in Japanese as Shokkō nishiki. The
first to emerge were expensive calendar prints, printed with multiple
blocks on very fine paper with heavy, opaque inks. These prints had
the number of days for each month hidden in the design, and were sent
at the New Year[i] as personalized greetings, bearing the name of the
patron rather than the artist. The blocks for these prints were later
re-used for commercial production, obliterating the patron's name and
replacing it with that of the artist.
The delicate, romantic prints of
Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770) were
amongst the first to realize expressive and complex colour
designs, printed with up to a dozen separate blocks to handle the
different colours and half-tones. His restrained, graceful
prints invoked the classicism of waka poetry and
The prolific Harunobu was the dominant ukiyo-e artist of his time.
The success of Harunobu's colourful nishiki-e from 1765 on led to a
steep decline in demand for the limited palettes of benizuri-e and
urushi-e, as well as hand-coloured prints.
A trend against the idealism of the prints of Harunobu and the Torii
school grew following Harunobu's death in 1770. Katsukawa Shunshō
(1726–1793) and his school produced portraits of kabuki actors with
greater fidelity to the actors' actual features than had been the
Koryūsai (1735 – c. 1790)
Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820) were prominent depicters of women
who also moved ukiyo-e away from the dominance of Harunobu's idealism
by focusing on contemporary urban fashions and celebrated real-world
courtesans and geisha.
Koryūsai was perhaps the most prolific
ukiyo-e artist of the 17th century, and produced a larger number of
paintings and print series than any predecessor. The Kitao school
that Shigemasa founded was one of the dominant schools of the closing
decades of the 18th century.
In the 1770s,
Utagawa Toyoharu produced a number of uki-e perspective
prints that demonstrated a mastery of Western perspective
techniques that had eluded his predecessors in the genre.
Toyoharu's works helped pioneer the landscape as an ukiyo-e subject,
rather than merely a background for human figures In 19th century,
Western-style perspective techniques were absorbed into Japanese
artistic culture, and deployed in the refined landscapes of such
Hokusai and Hiroshige, the latter a member of the
Utagawa school that Toyoharu founded. This school was to become one of
the most influential, and produced works in a far greater variety
of genres than any other school.
Early colour ukiyo-e
Couple in a Snowstorm
Arashi Otohachi as Ippon Saemon
Hinazuru of the Chōjiya
Koryūsai, c. 1778–80
Geisha and a servant carrying her koto
Perspective Pictures of Places in Japan: Sanjūsangen-dō in Kyoto
Toyoharu, c. 1772–1781
Peak period (late 18th century)
Two Beauties with Bamboo
Utamaro, c. 1795
While the late 18th century saw hard economic times, ukiyo-e saw a
peak in quantity and quality of works, particularly during the Kansei
era (1789–1791). The ukiyo-e of the period of the
brought about a focus on beauty and harmony that collapsed into
decadence and disharmony in the next century as the reforms broke down
and tensions rose, culminating in the
Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Especially in the 1780s,
Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) of the Torii
school depicted traditional ukiyo-e subjects like beauties and
urban scenes, which he printed on large sheets of paper, often as
multiprint horizontal diptychs or triptychs. His works dispensed with
the poetic dreamscapes made by Harunobu, opting instead for realistic
depictions of idealized female forms dressed in the latest fashions
and posed in scenic locations. He also produced portraits of
kabuki actors in a realistic style that included accompanying
musicians and chorus.
A law went into effect in 1790 requiring prints to bear a censor's
seal of approval to be sold. Censorship increased in strictness over
the following decades, and violators could receive harsh punishments.
From 1799 even preliminary drafts required approval. A group of
Utagawa-school offenders including Toyokuni had their works repressed
in 1801, and
Utamaro was imprisoned in 1804 for making prints of
16th-century political and military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Utamaro (c. 1753–1806) made his name in the 1790s with his bijin
ōkubi-e ("large-headed pictures of beautiful women") portraits,
focusing on the head and upper torso, a style others had previously
employed in portraits of kabuki actors.
Utamaro experimented with
line, colour, and printing techniques to bring out subtle differences
in the features, expressions, and backdrops of subjects from a wide
variety of class and background. Utamaro's individuated beauties were
in sharp contrast to the stereotyped, idealized images that had been
the norm. By the end of the decade, especially following the death
of his patron
Tsutaya Jūzaburō in 1797, Utamaro's prodigious output
declined in quality, and he died in 1806.
Appearing suddenly in 1794 and disappearing just as suddenly ten
months later, the prints of the enigmatic
Sharaku are amongst
ukiyo-e's best known.
Sharaku produced striking portraits of kabuki
actors, introducing a greater level of realism into his prints that
emphasized the differences between the actor and the portrayed
character. The expressive, contorted faces he depicted contrasted
sharply with the serene, mask-like faces more common to artists such
as Harunobu or Utamaro. Published by Tsutaya, Sharaku's work
found resistance, and in 1795 his output ceased as mysteriously as it
had appeared, and his real identity is still unknown. Utagawa
Toyokuni (1769–1825) produced kabuki portraits in a style Edo
townsfolk found more accessible, emphasizing dramatic postures and
avoiding Sharaku's realism.
A consistent high level of quality marks ukiyo-e of the late
18th-century, but the works of
Sharaku often overshadow
those other masters of the era. One of Kiyonaga's followers,
Eishi (1756–1829), abandoned his position as painter for shōgun
Tokugawa Ieharu to take up ukiyo-e design. He brought a refined sense
to his portraits of graceful, slender courtesans, and left behind a
number of noted students. With a fine line,
Eishōsai Chōki (fl.
1786–1808) designed portraits of delicate courtesans. The Utagawa
school came to dominate ukiyo-e output in the late
Edo was the primary centre of ukiyo-e production throughout the Edo
period. Another major centre developed in the
Kamigata region of areas
in and around
Kyoto and Osaka. In contrast to the range of subjects in
Edo prints, those of
Kamigata tended to be portraits of kabuki
actors. The style of the
Kamigata prints was little distinguished from
Edo until the late 18th century, partly because artists often
moved back and forth between the two areas. Colours tend to be
softer and pigments thicker in
Kamigata prints than in those of
Edo. In the 19th century many of the prints were designed by
kabuki fans and other amateurs.
Masters of the peak period
Cooling on Riverside
Kiyonaga, c. 1785
Three Beauties of the Present Day
Utamaro, c. 1793
Ichikawa Ebizo as Takemura Sadanoshin
Onoe Eisaburo I
Toyokuni, c. 1800
Niwaka Festival in the Licensed Quarters
Chōki, c. 1800
Late flowering: flora, fauna, and landscapes (19th century)
Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1831
Tenpō Reforms of 1841–1843 sought to suppress outward displays
of luxury, including the depiction of courtesans and actors. As a
result, many ukiyo-e artists designed travel scenes and pictures of
nature, especially birds and flowers. Landscapes had been given
limited attention since Moronobu, and they formed an important element
in the works of Kiyonaga and Shunchō. It was not until late in the
Edo period that landscape came into its own as a genre, especially via
the works of
Hokusai and Hiroshige. The landscape genre has come to
dominate Western perceptions of ukiyo-e, though ukiyo-e had a long
history preceding these late-era masters. The Japanese landscape
differed from the Western tradition in that it relied more heavily on
imagination, composition, and atmosphere than on strict observance of
The self-proclaimed "mad painter"
Hokusai (1760–1849) enjoyed a
long, varied career. His work is marked by a lack of the
sentimentality common to ukiyo-e, and a focus on formalism influenced
by Western art. Among his accomplishments are his illustrations of
Takizawa Bakin's novel Crescent Moon (ja), his series of
Hokusai Manga, and his popularization of the
landscape genre with Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which
includes his best-known print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. one of
the most famous works of Japanese art. In contrast to the work of
the older masters, Hokusai's colours were bold, flat, and abstract,
and his subject was not the pleasure districts but the lives and
environment of the common people at work. Established masters
Eisen, Kuniyoshi, and
Kunisada also followed Hokusai's steps into
landscape prints in the 1830s, producing prints with bold compositions
and striking effects.
Though not often given the attention of their better-known forebears,
Utagawa school produced a few masters in this declining period.
Kunisada (1786–1865) had few rivals in the tradition of
making portrait prints of courtesans and actors. One of those
rivals was Eisen (1790–1848), who was also adept at landscapes.
Perhaps the last significant member of this late period, Kuniyoshi
(1797–1861) tried his hand at a variety of themes and styles, much
Hokusai had. His historical scenes of warriors in violent combat
were popular, especially his series of heroes from the Suikoden
Chūshingura (1847). He was adept at landscapes
and satirical scenes—the latter an area rarely explored in the
dictatorial atmosphere of the
Edo period; that Kuniyoshia could dare
tackle such subjects was a sign of the weakening of the shogunate at
Hiroshige (1797–1858) is considered Hokusai's greatest rival in
stature. He specialized in pictures of birds and flowers, and serene
landscapes, and is best known for his travel series, such as The
Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and The Sixty-nine Stations of
the Kiso Kaidō, the latter a cooperative effort with Eisen.
His work was more realistic, subtly coloured, and atmospheric than
Hokusai's; nature and the seasons were key elements: mist, rain, snow,
and moonlight were prominent parts of his compositions.
Hiroshige's followers, including adopted son
Hiroshige II and
Hiroshige III, carried on their master's style of
landscapes into the Meiji era.
Masters of the late period
From the Suikoden series
Dawn at Futami-ga-ura
Kunisada, c. 1832
Shōno-juku, from Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō
Hiroshige, c. 1833–34
Two mandarin ducks
Decline (late 19th century)
Following the deaths of
Hokusai and Hiroshige and the Meiji
Restoration of 1868, ukiyo-e suffered a sharp decline in quantity and
quality. The rapid Westernization of the
Meiji period that
followed saw woodblock printing turn its services to journalism, and
face competition from photography. Practitioners of pure ukiyo-e
became more rare, and tastes turned away from a genre seen as a
remnant of an obsolescent era. Artists continued to produce
occasional notable works, but by the 1890s the tradition was
Synthetic pigments imported from Germany began to replace traditional
organic ones in the mid-19th century. Many prints from this era made
extensive use of a bright red, and were called aka-e ("red
pictures"). Artists such as
Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) led a trend
in the 1860s of gruesome scenes of murders and ghosts, monsters
and supernatural beings, and legendary Japanese and Chinese heroes.
His One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885–1892) depicts a variety of
fantastic and mundane themes with a moon motif. Kiyochika
(1847–1915) is known for his prints documenting the rapid
modernization of Tokyo, such as the introduction of railways, and his
depictions of Japan's wars with China and with Russia. Earlier a
painter of the Kanō school, in the 1870s Chikanobu (1838–1912)
turned to prints, particularly of the imperial family and scenes of
Western influence on Japanese life in the Meiji period.
Mirror of the Japanese Nobility
From One Hundred Aspects of the Moon
Russo-Japanese Naval Battle at the Entrance of Incheon: The Great
Victory of the Japanese Navy—Banzai!
Introduction to the West
Aside from Dutch traders, who had had trading relations dating to the
beginning of the
Edo period, Westerners paid little notice to
Japanese art before the mid-19th century, and when they did they
rarely distinguished it from other art from the East. Swedish
Carl Peter Thunberg spent a year in the Dutch trading
settlement Dejima, near Nagasaki, and was one of the earliest
Westerners to collect Japanese prints. The export of ukiyo-e
thereafter slowly grew, and at the beginning of the 19th century Dutch
merchant-trader Isaac Titsingh's collection drew the attention of
connoisseurs of art in Paris.
The Japanese Satsuma pavilion at the International Exhibition of 1867
The arrival in
Edo of American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 led to
Convention of Kanagawa
Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, which opened Japan to the outside
world after over two centuries of seclusion.
Ukiyo-e prints were
amongst the items he brought back to the United States. Such
prints had appeared in Paris from at least the 1830s, and by the 1850s
were numerous; reception was mixed, and even when praised ukiyo-e
was generally thought inferior to Western works which emphasized
mastery of naturalistic perspective and anatomy.
Japanese art drew
notice at the International Exhibition of 1867 in Paris, and
became fashionable in France and England in the 1870s and 1880s.
The prints of
Hiroshige played a prominent role in shaping
Western perceptions of Japanese art. At the time of their
introduction to the West, woodblock printing was the most common mass
medium in Japan, and the Japanese considered it of little lasting
Early Europeans promoters and scholars of ukiyo-e and Japanese art
Edmond de Goncourt
Edmond de Goncourt and art critic Philippe Burty,
who coined the term "Japonism".[j] Stores selling Japanese goods
opened, including those of Édouard Desoye in 1862 and art dealer
Siegfried Bing in 1875. From 1888 to 1891 Bing published the
magazine Artistic Japan in English, French, and German
editions, and curated an ukiyo-e exhibition at the École des
Beaux-Arts in 1890 attended by artists such as Mary Cassatt.
Not only the visual arts but also music drew inspiration from ukiyo-e
in the West: the cover of Debussy's La mer (1905).
Ernest Fenollosa was the earliest Western devotee of Japanese
culture, and did much to promote Japanese art—Hokusai's works
featured prominently at his inaugural exhibition as first curator of
Japanese art Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in Tokyo in 1898 he
curated the first ukiyo-e exhibition in Japan. By the end of the
19th century, the popularity of ukiyo-e in the West drove prices
beyond the means of most collectors—some, such as Degas, traded
their own paintings for such prints.
Tadamasa Hayashi was a prominent
Paris-based dealer of respected tastes whose Tokyo office was
responsible for evaluating and exporting large quantities of ukiyo-e
prints to the West in such quantities that Japanese critics later
accused him of siphoning Japan of its national treasure. The
drain first went unnoticed in Japan, as Japanese artists were
immersing themselves in the classical painting techniques of the
Japanese art, and particularly ukiyo-e prints, came to influence
Western art from the time of the early Impressionists. Early
painter-collectors incorporated Japanese themes and compositional
techniques into their works as early as the 1860s: the patterned
wallpapers and rugs in Manet's paintings were inspired by ukiyo-e's
patterned kimonos, and Whistler focused his attention on ephemeral
elements of nature as in ukiyo-e landscapes. Van Gogh was an
avid collector, and painted copies in oil of prints by
Eisen. Degas and Cassatt depicted fleeting, everyday moments in
Japanese-influenced compositions and perspectives. Ukiyo-e's flat
perspective and unmodulated colours were a particular influence on
graphic designers and poster makers. Toulouse-Lautrec's
lithographs displayed his interest not only in ukiyo-e's flat colours
and outlined forms, but also in their subject matter: performers and
prostitutes. He signed much of this work with his initials in a
circle, imitating the seals on Japanese prints. Other artists of
the time who drew influence from ukiyo-e include Monet, La
Farge, Gauguin, and
Les Nabis members such as Bonnard
and Vuillard. French composer
Claude Debussy drew inspiration for
his music from the prints of
Hokusai and Horoshige, most prominently
in La mer (1905). Imagist poets such as
Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound
found inspiration in ukiyo-e prints; Lowell published a book of poetry
called Pictures of the Floating World (1919) on oriental themes or in
an oriental style.
Ukiyo-e influence on Western art
Bamboo Yards, Kyōbashi Bridge
Hiroshige, c. 1857–58
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge
Whistler, c. 1872–75
Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake
Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige)
van Gogh, 1887
Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery
Degas, c. 1879–80
Cassatt, c. 1890–91
Descendant traditions (20th century)
Kanae Yamamoto, 1904
The travel sketchbook became a popular genre beginning about 1905, as
the Meiji government promoted travel within Japan to have citizens
better know their country. In 1915, publisher Shōzaburō
Watanabe introduced the term shin-hanga ("new prints") to describe a
style of prints he published that featured traditional Japanese
subject matter and were aimed at foreign and upscale Japanese
audiences. Prominent artists included Goyō Hashiguchi, called
Utamaro of the Taishō period" for his manner of depicting women;
Shinsui Itō, who brought more modern sensibilities to images of
women; and Hasui Kawase, who made modern landscapes.
Watanabe also published works by non-Japanese artists, an early
success of which was a set of Indian- and Japanese-themed prints in
1916 by the English
Charles W. Bartlett
Charles W. Bartlett (1860–1940). Other
publishers followed Watanabe's success, and some shin-hanga artists
such as Goyō and
Hiroshi Yoshida set up studios to publish their own
Artists of the sōsaku-hanga ("creative prints") movement took control
of every aspect of the printmaking process—design, carving, and
printing were by the same pair of hands. Kanae Yamamoto
(1882–1946), then a student at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, is
credited with the birth of this approach. In 1904, he produced
Fisherman using woodblock printing, a technique until then frowned
upon by the
Japanese art establishment as old-fashioned and for its
association with commercial mass production. The foundation of
the Japanese Woodcut Artists' Association in 1918 marks the beginning
of this approach as a movement. The movement favoured
individuality in its artists, and as such has no dominant themes or
styles. Works ranged from the entirely abstract ones of Kōshirō
Onchi (1891–1955) to the traditional figurative depictions of
Japanese scenes of
Un'ichi Hiratsuka (1895–1997). These artists
produced prints not because they hoped to reach a mass audience, but
as a creative end in itself, and did not restrict their print media to
the woodblock of traditional ukiyo-e.
Prints from the late-20th and 21st centuries have evolved from the
concerns of earlier movements, especially the sōsaku-hanga movement's
emphasis on individual expression. Screen printing, etching,
mezzotint, mixed media, and other Western methods have joined
traditional woodcutting amongst printmakers' techniques.
Descendents of ukiyo-e
Taj Mahal, Charles W. Bartlett, 1916
Combing the Hair
Goyō Hashiguchi, 1920
Shiba Zōjōji, Hasui Kawase, 1925
Lyric No. 23
Kōshirō Onchi, 1952
Woman Visiting the Shrine in the Night, Harunobu, 17th century. Bold,
flat lines define and contain areas of flat colour.
Early ukiyo-e artists brought with them a sophisticated knowledge of
and training in the composition principles of classical Chinese
painting; gradually these artists shed the overt Chinese influence to
develop a native Japanese idiom. The early ukiyo-e artists have been
called "Primitives" in the sense that the print medium was a new
challenge to which they adapted these centuries-old techniques—their
image designs are not considered "primitive". Many ukiyo-e
artists received training from teachers of the Kanō and other
A defining feature of most ukiyo-e prints is a well-defined, bold,
flat line. The earliest prints were monochromatic, and these
lines were the only printed element; even with the advent of colour
this characteristic line continued to dominate. In ukiyo-e
composition forms are arranged in flat spaces with figures
typically in a single plane of depth. Attention was drawn to vertical
and horizontal relationships, as well as details such as lines,
shapes, and patterns such as those on clothing. Compositions were
often asymmetrical, and the viewpoint was often from unusual angles,
such as from above. Elements of images were often cropped, giving the
composition a spontaneous feel. In colour prints, contours of
most colour areas are sharply defined, usually by the linework.
The aesthetic of flat areas of colour contrasts with the modulated
colours expected in Western traditions and with other prominent
contemporary traditions in
Japanese art patronized by the upper class,
such as in the subtle monochrome ink brushstrokes of zenga brush
painting or tonal colours of the
Kanō school of painting.
Wabi-sabi aesthetic in a 16th-century tea bowl
The colourful, ostentatious, and complex patterns, concern with
changing fashions, and tense, dynamic poses and compositions in
ukiyo-e are in striking contrast with many concepts in traditional
Japanese aesthetics. Prominent amongst these, wabi-sabi favours
simplicity, asymmetry, and imperfection, with evidence of the passage
of time; and shibui values subtlety, humility, and
Ukiyo-e can be less at odds with aesthetic concepts
such as the racy, urbane stylishness of iki.
Ukiyo-e displays an unusual approach to graphical perspective, one
that can appear underdeveloped when compared to European paintings of
the same period. Western-style geometrical perspective was known in
Japan—practised most prominently by the
Akita ranga painters of the
1770s—as were Chinese methods to create a sense of depth using a
homogeny of parallel lines. The techniques sometimes appeared together
in ukiyo-e works, geometrical perspective providing an illusion of
depth in the background and the more expressive Chinese perspective in
the fore. The techniques were most likely learned at first
through Chinese Western-style paintings rather than directly from
Western works. Long after becoming familiar with these
techniques, artists continued to harmonize them with traditional
methods according to their compositional and expressive needs.
Other ways of indicating depth included the Chinese tripartite
composition method used in Buddhist pictures, where a large form is
placed in the foreground, a smaller in the midground, and yet a
smaller in the background; this can be seen in Hokusai's Great Wave,
with a large boat in the foreground, a smaller behind it, and a small
Mt Fuji behind them.
There was a tendency since early ukiyo-e to pose beauties in what art
historian Midori Wakakura (ja) called a "serpentine posture",[k]
which involves the subjects' bodies twisting unnaturally while facing
behind themselves. Art historian Motoaki Kōno (ja) posited that
this had its roots in traditional buyō dance; Haruo Suwa (ja)
countered that the poses were artistic licence taken by ukiyo-e
artists, causing a seemingly relaxed pose to reach unnatural or
impossible physical extremes. This remained the case even when
realistic perspective techniques were applied to other sections of the
Themes and genres
Typical subjects were female beauties ("'bijin-ga'"), kabuki actors
("'yakusha-e'"), and landscapes. The women depicted were most often
courtesans and geisha at leisure, and promoted the entertainments to
be found in the pleasure districts. The detail with which artists
depicted courtesans' fashions and hairstyles allows the prints to be
dated with some reliability. Less attention was given to accuracy of
the women's physical features, which followed the day's pictorial
fashions—the faces stereotyped, the bodies tall and lanky in one
generation and petite in another. Portraits of celebrities were
much in demand, in particular those from the kabuki and sumo worlds,
two of the most popular entertainments of the era. While the
landscape has come to define ukiyo-e for many Westerners, landscapes
flourished relatively late in the ukiyo-e's history.
Portraits of beauties were a mainstay of ukiyo-e. The wallpaper and
other items in this brocade print are extensively embossed.
Evening Snow on the Nurioke, Harunobu, 1766
Ukiyo-e prints grew out of book illustration—many of Moronobu's
earliest single-page prints were originally pages from books he had
E-hon books of illustrations were popular and
continued be an important outlet for ukiyo-e artists. In the late
Hokusai produced the three-volume One Hundred Views of Mount
Fuji and the fifteen-volume
Hokusai Manga, the latter a compendium of
over 4000 sketches of a wide variety of realistic and fantastic
Traditional Japanese religions do not consider sex or pornography a
moral corruption in the
Judaeo-Christian sense, and until the
changing morals of the Meiji era led to its suppression, shunga erotic
prints were a major genre. While the Tokugawa regime subjected
Japan to strict censorship laws, pornography was not considered an
important offence and generally met with the censors' approval.
Many of these prints displayed a high level a draughtsmanship, and
often humour, in their explicit depictions of bedroom scenes, voyeurs,
and oversized anatomy. As with depictions of courtesans, these
images were closely tied to entertainments of the pleasure
quarters. Nearly every ukiyo-e master produced shunga at some
point. Records of societal acceptance of shunga are absent,
Timon Screech posits that there were almost certainly some
concerns over the matter, and that its level of acceptability has been
exaggerated by later collectors, especially in the West.
Scenes from nature have been an important part of Asian art throughout
history. Artists have closely studied the correct forms and anatomy of
plants and animals, even though depictions of human anatomy remained
more fanciful until modern times.
Ukiyo-e nature prints are called
kachō-e, which translates as "flower-and-bird pictures", though the
genre was open to more than just flowers or birds, and the flowers and
birds did not necessarily appear together. Hokusai's detailed,
precise nature prints are credited with establishing kachō-e as a
Tenpō Reforms of the 1840s suppressed the depiction of actors and
courtesans. Aside from landscapes and kachō-e, artists turned to
depictions of historical scenes, such as of ancient warriors or of
scenes from legend, literature, and religion. The 11th-century Tale of
Genji and the 13th-century Tale of the Heike have been
sources of artistic inspiration throughout Japanese history,
including in ukiyo-e. Well-known warriors and swordsmen such as
Miyamoto Musashi (1584–1645) were frequent subjects, as were
depictions of monsters, the supernatural, and heroes of Japanese and
From the 17th to 19th centuries Japan isolated itself from the rest of
the world. Trade, primarily with the Dutch and Chinese, was restricted
to the island of
Dejima near Nagasaki. Outlandish pictures called
Nagasaki-e were sold to tourists of the foreigners and their
wares. In the mid-19th century,
Yokohama became the primary
foreign settlement after 1859, from which Western knowledge
proliferated in Japan. Especially from 1858 to 1862 Yokohama-e
prints documented, with various levels of fact and fancy, the growing
community of world denizens with whom the Japanese were now coming in
contact; triptychs of scenes of Westerners and their technology
were particularly popular.
Specialized prints included surimono, deluxe, limited-edition prints
aimed at connoisseurs, of which a five-line kyōka poem was usually
part of the design; and uchiwa-e printed hand fans, which often
suffer from having been handled.
Yakusha-e print of two kabuki actors
Sumo wrestlers in preparation, e-hon page from
Hokusai, early 19th century
Peonies and Canary
Kachō-ga by Hokusai, c. 1834
From erotic shunga sex manual Treasures Hidden in our Pockets
Eisen, c. 1830s–40s
Yokohama-e by Utagawa Yoshitora, 1860
Main article: Nikuhitsu-ga
Ukiyo-e artists often made both prints and paintings; some specialized
in one or the other. In contrast with previous traditions,
ukiyo-e painters favoured bright, sharp colours, and often
delineated contours with sumi ink, an effect similar to the linework
in prints. Unrestricted by the technical limitations of printing,
a wider range of techniques, pigments, and surfaces were available to
the painter. Artists painted with pigments made from mineral or
organic substances, such as safflower, ground shells, lead, and
cinnabar, and later synthetic dyes imported from the West such as
Paris green and Prussian blue. Silk or paper kakemono hanging
scrolls, makimono handscrolls, or byōbu folding screens were the most
Kaigetsudō Ando, 18th century
A Winter Party
Utagawa Toyoharu, mid-18th – late 19th century
Yoshiwara no Hana
Utamaro, c. 1788–91
Hokusai, mid-19th century
Key block for ukiyo-e print, Utagawa Yoshiiku, 1862
Woodblock printing in Japan
Ukiyo-e prints were the works of teams of artisans in several
workshops; it was rare for designers to cut their own
woodblocks. Labour was divided into four groups: the publisher,
who commissioned, promoted, and distributed the prints; the artists,
who provided the design image; the woodcarvers, who prepared the
woodblocks for printing; and the printers, who made impressions of the
woodblocks on paper. Normally only the names of the artist and
publisher were credited on the finished print.
Ukiyo-e prints were impressed on hand-made paper manually, rather
than by mechanical press as in the West. The artist provided an
ink drawing on thin paper, which was pasted to a block of cherry
wood[l] and rubbed with oil until the upper layers of paper could be
pulled away, leaving a translucent layer of paper that the
block-cutter could use as a guide. The block-cutter cut away the
non-black areas of the image, leaving raised areas that were inked to
leave an impression. The original drawing was destroyed in the
Prints were made with blocks face up so the printer could vary
pressure for different effects, and watch as paper absorbed the
water-based sumi ink, applied quickly in even horizontal
strokes. Amongst the printer's tricks were embossing of the
image, achieved by pressing an uninked woodblock on the paper to
achieve effects, such as the textures of clothing patterns or fishing
net. Other effects included burnishing by rubbing with agate
to brighten colours; varnishing; overprinting; dusting with metal
or mica; and sprays to imitate falling snow.
The ukiyo-e print was a commercial art form, and the publisher played
an important role. Publishing was highly competitive; over a
thousand publishers are known from throughout the period. The number
peaked at around 250 in the 1840s and 1850s—200 in Edo
alone—and slowly shrank following the opening of Japan until
about 40 remained at the opening of the 20th century. The publishers
owned the woodblocks and copyrights, and from the late 18th century
enforced copyrights through the Picture Book and Print Publishers
Guild.[m] Prints that went through several pressings were
particularly profitable, as the publisher could reuse the woodblocks
without further payment to the artist or woodblock cutter. The
woodblocks were also traded or sold to other publishers or
pawnshops. Publishers were usually also vendors, and commonly
sold each other's wares in their shops. In addition to the
artist's seal, publishers marked the prints with their own
seals—some a simple logo, others quite elaborate, incorporating an
address or other information.
The publisher's seal of Tsutaya Jūzaburō, who published
Sharaku in the 1790s
Print designers went through apprenticeship before being granted the
right to produce prints of their own that they could sign with their
own names. Young designers could be expected to cover part or all
of the costs of cutting the woodblocks. As the artists gained fame
publishers usually covered these costs, and artists could demand
In pre-modern Japan, people could go by numerous names throughout
their lives, their childhood yōmyō personal name different from
their zokumyō name as an adult. An artist's name consisted of a gasei
artist surname followed by an azana personal art name. The gasei was
most frequently taken from the school the artist belonged to, such as
Utagawa or Torii, and the azana normally took a Chinese character
from the master's art name—for example, many students of Toyokuni
(豊国) took the "kuni" (国) from his name, including Kunisada
(国貞) and Kuniyoshi (国芳). The names artists signed to
their works can be a source of confusion as they sometimes changed
names through their careers;
Hokusai was an extreme case, using
over a hundred names throughout his seventy-year career.
The prints were mass-marketed and by the mid-19th century total
circulation of a print could run into the thousands. Retailers
and travelling sellers promoted them at prices affordable to
prosperous townspeople. In some cases the prints advertised
kimono designs by the print artist. From the second half of the
17th century, prints were frequently marketed as part of a
series, each print stamped with the series name and the print's
number in that series. This proved a successful marketing
technique, as collectors bought each new print in the series to keep
their collections complete. By the 19th century, series such as
Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō ran to dozens of
Making ukiyo-e prints
Making Prints, Hosoki Toshikazu (ja), 1879
The woodblock printing process in a print by Kunisada, 1857. An actual
print shop would not have been staffed by such beauties.
Colour print production
While colour printing in Japan dates to the 1640s, early ukiyo-e
prints used only black ink. Colour was sometimes added by hand, using
a red lead ink in tan-e prints, or later in a pink safflower ink in
Colour printing arrived in books in the 1720s and in
single-sheet prints in the 1740s, with a different block and printing
for each colour. Early colours were limited to pink and green;
techniques expanded over the following two decades to allow up to five
colours. The mid-1760s brought full-colour nishiki-e prints
made from ten or more woodblocks. To keep the blocks for each
colour aligned correctly registration marks called kentō were placed
on one corner and an adjacent side.
Prussian blue was a prominent synthetic dye in the 19th century.
Printers first used natural colour dyes made from mineral or vegetable
sources. The dyes had a translucent quality that allowed a variety of
colours to be mixed from primary red, blue, and yellow pigments.
In the 18th century,
Prussian blue became popular, and was
particularly prominent in the landscapes of
Hiroshige, as was bokashi, where the printer produced gradations
of colour or the blending of one colour into another. Cheaper and
more consistent synthetic aniline dyes arrived from the West in 1864.
The colours were harsher and brighter than traditional pigments. The
Meiji government promoted their use as part of broader policies of
Criticism and historiography
Contemporary records of ukiyo-e artists are rare. The most significant
Ukiyo-e Ruikō ("Various Thoughts on Ukiyo-e"), a collection of
commentaries and artist biographies.
Ōta Nanpo compiled the first,
no-longer-extant version around 1790. The work did not see print
Edo era, but circulated in hand-copied editions that were
subject to numerous additions and alterations; over 120 variants
Ukiyo-e Ruikō are known.
Before World War II, the predominant view of ukiyo-e stressed the
centrality of prints; this viewpoint ascribes ukiyo-e's founding to
Moronobu. Following the war, thinking turned to the importance of
ukiyo-e painting and making direct connections with 17th-century
Yamato-e paintings; this viewpoint sees Matabei as the genre's
originator, and is especially favoured in Japan. This view had become
widespread among Japanese researchers by the 1930s, but the
militaristic government of the time suppressed it, wanting to
emphasize a division between the
Yamato-e scroll paintings associated
with the court, and the prints associated with the sometimes
anti-authoritarian merchant class.
American scholar of
Ernest Fenollosa was the first to
complete a comprehensive critical history of ukiyo-e.
The earliest comprehensive historical and critical works on ukiyo-e
came from the West.
Ernest Fenollosa was Professor of Philosophy at
the Imperial University in Tokyo from 1878, and was Commissioner of
Fine Arts to the Japanese government from 1886. His Masters of Ukioye
of 1896 was the first comprehensive overview and set the stage for
most later works with an approach to the history in terms of epochs:
beginning with Matabei in a primitive age, it evolved towards a
late-18th-century golden age that began to decline with the advent of
Utamaro, and had a brief revival with
Hokusai and Hiroshige's
landscapes in the 1830s. Laurence Binyon, the Keeper of Oriental
Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, wrote an account in
Painting in the Far East in 1908 that was similar to Fenollosa's, but
Sharaku amongst the masters. Arthur Davison Ficke
built on the works of Fenollosa and Binyon with a more comprehensive
Chats on Japanese Prints in 1915. James A. Michener's The
Floating World in 1954 broadly followed the chronologies of the
earlier works, while dropping classifications into periods and
recognizing the earlier artists not as primitives but as accomplished
masters emerging from earlier painting traditions. For Michener
and his sometime collaborator Richard Lane, ukiyo-e began with
Moronobu rather than Matabei. Lane's Masters of the Japanese
Print of 1962 maintained the approach of period divisions while
placing ukiyo-e firmly within the genealogy of Japanese art. The book
acknowledges artists such as
Yoshitoshi and Kiyochika as late
Seiichirō Takahashi (ja)'s Traditional Woodblock Prints of Japan
of 1964 placed ukiyo-e artists in three periods: the first was a
primitive period that included Harunobu, followed by a golden age of
Kiyonaga, Utamaro, and Sharaku, and then a closing period of decline
following the declaration beginning in the 1790s of strict sumptuary
laws that dictated what could be depicted in artworks. The book
nevertheless recognizes a larger number of masters from throughout
this last period than earlier works had, and viewed ukiyo-e
painting as a revival of
Yamato-e painting. Tadashi
Kobayashi (ja) further refined Takahashi's analysis by
identifying the decline as coinciding with the desperate attempts of
the shogunate to hold on to power through the passing of draconian
laws as its hold on the country continued to break down, culminating
Meiji Restoration in 1868.
Ukiyo-e scholarship has tended to focus on the cataloguing of artists,
an approach that lacks the rigour and originality that has come to be
applied to art analysis in other areas. Such catalogues are numerous,
but tend overwhelmingly to concentrate on a group of recognized
geniuses. Little original research has been added to the early,
foundational evaluations of ukiyo-e and its artists, especially with
regard to relatively minor artists. While the commercial nature
of ukiyo-e has always been acknowledged, evaluation of artists and
their works has rested on the aesthetic preferences of connoisseurs
and paid little heed to contemporary commercial success.
Standards for inclusion in the ukiyo-e canon rapidly evolved in the
Utamaro was particularly contentious, seen by
Fenollosa and others as a degenerate symbol of ukiyo-e's decline;
Utamaro has since gained general acceptance as one of the form's
greatest masters. Artists of the 19th century such as
ignored or marginalized, attracting scholarly attention only towards
the end of the 20th century. Works on late-era Utagawa artists
Kunisada and Kuniyoshi have revived some of the contemporary
esteem these artists enjoyed. Many late works examine the social or
other conditions behind the art, and are unconcerned with valuations
that would place it in a period of decline.
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki was critical of the superior attitude of
Westerners who claimed a higher aestheticism in purporting to have
discovered ukiyo-e. He maintained that ukiyo-e was merely the easiest
Japanese art to understand from the perspective of Westerners'
values, and that Japanese of all social strata enjoyed ukiyo-e, but
that Confucian morals of the time kept them from freely discussing it,
social mores that were violated by the West's flaunting of the
Manga histories often find an ancestor in the
Rakuten Kitazawa, Tagosaku to Mokube no Tōkyō Kenbutsu,[n] 1902
Since the dawn of the 20th century historians of manga—Japanese
comics and cartooning—have developed narratives connecting the art
form to pre-20th-century Japanese art. Particular emphasis falls on
Manga as a precursor, though Hokusai's book is not
narrative, nor does the term manga originate with Hokusai. In
English and other languages the word manga is used in the restrictive
sense of "Japanese comics" or "Japanese-style comics", while in
Japanese it indicates all forms of comics, cartooning, and
Collection and preservation
The ruling classes strictly limited the space permitted for the homes
of the lower social classes; the relatively small size of ukiyo-e
works was ideal for hanging in these homes. Little record of the
patrons of ukiyo-e paintings has survived. They sold for considerably
higher prices than prints—up to many thousands of times more, and
thus must have been purchased by the wealthy, likely merchants and
perhaps some from the samurai class. Late-era prints are the most
numerous extant examples, as they were produced in the greatest
quantities in the 19th century, and the older a print is the less
chance it had of surviving.
Ukiyo-e was largely associated with
Edo, and visitors to
Edo often bought what they called azuma-e[o]
("pictures of the Eastern capital") as souvenirs. Shops that sold them
might specialize in products such as hand-held fans, or offer a
The ukiyo-e print market was highly diversified as it sold to a
heterogeneous public, from dayworkers to wealthy merchants.
Little concrete is known about production and consumption habits.
Detailed records in
Edo were kept in a wide variety of courtesans,
actors, and sumo wrestlers, but no such records pertaining to ukiyo-e
remain—or perhaps ever existed. Determining what is understood about
the demographics of ukiyo-e consumption has required indirect
Determining at what prices prints sold is a challenge for experts, as
records of hard figures are scanty and there was great variety in the
production quality, size, supply and demand, and methods,
which went through changes such as the introduction of full-colour
printing. How expensive prices can be considered is also
difficult to determine as social and economic conditions were in flux
throughout the period. In the 19th century, records survive of
prints selling from as low as 16 mon to 100 mon for deluxe
editions. Jun'ichi Ōkubo suggests that prices in the 20s and 30s
of mon were likely common for standard prints. As a loose
comparison, a bowl of soba noodles in the early 19th century typically
sold for 16 mon.
Ukiyo-e prints are sensitive to light. The left half shows this print
in 1989, the right shows the same print after being on display until
Utagawa Yoshitaki, 19th century
The dyes in ukiyo-e prints are susceptible to fading when exposed even
to low levels of light; this makes long-term display undesirable. The
paper they are printed on deteriorates when it comes in contact with
acidic materials, so storage boxes, folders, and mounts must be of
neutral pH or alkaline. Prints should be regularly inspected for
problems needing treatment, and stored at a relative humidity of 70%
or less to prevent fungal discolourations.
The paper and pigments in ukiyo-e paintings are sensitive to light and
seasonal changes in humidity. Mounts must be flexible, as the sheets
can tear under sharp changes in humidity. In the
Edo era, the sheets
were mounted on long-fibred paper and preserved scrolled up in plain
paulownia boxes placed in another lacquer wooden box. In museum
settings display times must be limited to prevent deterioration from
exposure to light and environmental pollution. Scrolling causes
concavities in the paper, and the unrolling and rerolling of the
scrolls causes creasing. Ideal relative humidity for scrolls
should be kept between 50% and 60%; brittleness results from too dry a
Because ukiyo-e prints were mass-produced, collecting them presents
considerations different from the collecting of paintings. There is
wide variation in the condition, rarity, cost, and quality of extant
prints. Prints may have stains, foxing, wormholes, tears, creases, or
dogmarks, the colours may have faded, or they may have been retouched.
Carvers may have altered the colours or composition of prints that
went through multiple editions. When cut after printing, the paper may
have been trimmed within the margin. Values of prints depend on a
variety of factors, including the artist's reputation, print
condition, rarity, and whether it is an original pressing—even
high-quality later printings will fetch a fraction of the valuation of
an original. As of 2016, the record price for an ukiyo-e print
sold at auction was €7005745000000000000♠745000 for Utamaro's
Fukaku Shinobu Koi
Fukaku Shinobu Koi (c. 1793–94).
Ukiyo-e prints often went through multiple editions, sometimes with
changes made to the blocks in later editions. Editions made from recut
woodblocks also circulate, such as legitimate later reproductions, as
well as pirate editions and other fakes. Takamizawa Enji
(1870–1927), a producer of ukiyo-e reproductions, developed a method
of recutting woodblocks to print fresh colour on faded originals, over
which he used tobacco ash to make the fresh ink seem aged. These
refreshed prints he resold as original printings. Amongst the
defrauded collectors was American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who
brought 7003150000000000000♠1500 Takamizawa prints with him from
Japan to the US, some of which he had sold before the truth was
Ukiyo-e artists are referred to in the Japanese style, the surname
preceding the personal name, and well-known artists such as Utamaro
Hokusai by personal name alone. Dealers normally refer to
ukiyo-e prints by the names of the standard sizes, most commonly the
34.5-by-22.5-centimetre (13.6 in × 8.9 in) aiban, the
22.5-by-19-centimetre (8.9 in × 7.5 in) chūban, and
the 38-by-23-centimetre (15.0 in × 9.1 in)
ōban—precise sizes vary, and paper was often trimmed after
Many of the largest high-quality collections of ukiyo-e lie outside
Japan. Examples entered the collection of the National Library of
France in the first half of the 19th century. The
British Museum began
a collection in 1860 that by the late 20th century numbered
7004700000000000000♠70000 items. The largest, surpassing
7005100000000000000♠100000 items, resides in the Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston, begun when
Ernest Fenollosa donated his collection
in 1912. The first exhibition in Japan of ukiyo-e prints was
likely one presented by
Kōjirō Matsukata in 1925, who amassed his
collection in Paris during World War I and later donated it to
the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. The largest collection
of ukiyo-e in Japan is the 7005100000000000000♠100000 pieces in the
Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
Japan Ukiyo-e Museum in the city of Matsumoto.
List of ukiyo-e terms
Schools of ukiyo-e artists
Ukiyo-e Ōta Memorial Museum of Art
Ukiyo-e Society of America
Hiroshige Museum of Art
Visual arts portal
^ The obsolete transliteration ukiyo-ye appears in older texts.
^ 仕込絵 shikomi-e
^ machishū (ja) (町衆)
^ ukiyo (浮世) "floating world"
^ ukiyo (憂き世) "world of sorrow"
^ tan (丹): a pigment made from red lead mixed with sulphur and
^ beni (紅): a pigment produced from safflower petals.
^ Torii Kiyotada (ja) is said to have made the first uki-e;
Masanobu advertised himself as its innovator.
A Layman's Explanation of the Rules of Drawing with a Compass and
Ruler introduced Western-style geometrical perspective drawing to
Japan in the 1734, based on a Dutch text of 1644 (see Rangaku, "Dutch
learning" during the
Edo period); Chinese texts on the subject also
appeared during the decade.
Okumura likely learned about geometrical perspective from Chinese
sources, some of which bear a striking resemblance to Okumura's
^ Until 1873 the
Japanese calendar was lunisolar, and each year the
Japanese New Year
Japanese New Year fell on different days of the Gregorian calendar's
January or February.
^ Burty coined the term le Japonisme in French in 1872.
^ 蛇体姿勢 jatai shisei, "serpentine posture"
^ Traditional Japanese woodblocks were cut along the grain, as opposed
to the blocks of Western wood engraving, which were cut across the
grain. In both methods, the dimensions of the woodblock was limited by
the girth of the tree. In the 20th century, plywood became the
material of choice for Japanese woodcarvers, as it is cheaper, easier
to carve, and less limited in size.
^ Jihon Toiya (地本問屋) "Picture Book and Print Publishers
^ Tagosaku to Mokube no Tokyo Kenbutsu
田吾作と杢兵衛の東京見物 Tagosaku and Mokube Sightseeing
^ azuma-e (東絵) "pictures of the Eastern capital"
^ Lane 1962, pp. 8–9.
^ a b Kobayashi 1997, p. 66.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 66–67.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 67–68.
^ a b Kita 1984, pp. 252–253.
^ a b c Penkoff 1964, pp. 4–5.
^ Marks 2012, p. 17.
^ Singer 1986, p. 66.
^ Penkoff 1964, p. 6.
^ a b Bell 2004, p. 137.
^ a b Kobayashi 1997, p. 68.
^ a b c Harris 2011, p. 37.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 69.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 69–70.
^ Hickman 1978, pp. 5–6.
^ a b c Kikuchi & Kenny 1969, p. 31.
^ a b Kita 2011, p. 155.
^ Kita 1999, p. 39.
^ a b Kita 2011, pp. 149, 154–155.
^ Kita 1999, pp. 44–45.
^ Yashiro 1958, pp. 216, 218.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 70–71.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 71–72.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 71.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 72–73.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 72–74.
^ a b Kobayashi 1997, pp. 75–76.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 74–75.
^ a b Noma 1966, p. 188.
^ Hibbett 2001, p. 69.
^ Munsterberg 1957, p. 154.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 76.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 76–77.
^ a b c Kobayashi 1997, p. 77.
^ Penkoff 1964, p. 16.
^ a b c King 2010, p. 47.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 78.
^ Suwa 1998, pp. 64–68.
^ Suwa 1998, p. 64.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 77–79.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 80–81.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 82.
^ Lane 1962, pp. 150, 152.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 81.
^ a b Michener 1959, p. 89.
^ a b Munsterberg 1957, p. 155.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 82–83.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 83.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 84–85.
^ Hockley 2003, p. 3.
^ a b c Kobayashi 1997, p. 85.
^ Marks 2012, p. 68.
^ Stewart 1922, p. 224; Neuer, Libertson & Yoshida 1990,
^ Thompson 1986, p. 44.
^ Salter 2006, p. 204.
^ Bell 2004, p. 105.
^ Neuer, Libertson & Yoshida 1990, p. 145.
^ a b c d Kobayashi 1997, p. 91.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 85–86.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 87.
^ Michener 1954, p. 231.
^ a b Lane 1962, p. 224.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 87–88.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 88.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 88–89.
^ a b c d Neuer, Libertson & Yoshida 1990, p. 40.
^ a b Kobayashi 1997, pp. 91–92.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 89–91.
^ Neuer, Libertson & Yoshida 1990, pp. 40–41.
^ Harris 2011, p. 38.
^ Salter 2001, pp. 12–13.
^ Winegrad 2007, pp. 18–19.
^ a b Harris 2011, p. 132.
^ a b Michener 1959, p. 175.
^ Michener 1959, pp. 176–177.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 92–93.
^ Lewis & Lewis 2008, p. 385; Honour & Fleming 2005,
p. 709; Benfey 2007, p. 17; Addiss, Groemer & Rimer
2006, p. 146; Buser 2006, p. 168.
^ Lewis & Lewis 2008, p. 385; Belloli 1999, p. 98.
^ Munsterberg 1957, p. 158.
^ King 2010, pp. 84–85.
^ Lane 1962, pp. 284–285.
^ a b Lane 1962, p. 290.
^ a b Lane 1962, p. 285.
^ Harris 2011, pp. 153–154.
^ Kobayashi 1997, pp. 94–95.
^ Munsterberg 1957, pp. 158–159.
^ King 2010, p. 116.
^ a b Michener 1959, p. 200.
^ Michener 1959, p. 200; Kobayashi 1997, p. 95.
^ Kobayashi 1997, p. 95; Faulkner & Robinson 1999,
pp. 22–23; Kobayashi 1997, p. 95; Michener 1959,
^ Seton 2010, p. 71.
^ a b Seton 2010, p. 69.
^ Harris 2011, p. 153.
^ Meech-Pekarik 1986, pp. 125–126.
^ a b c d Watanabe 1984, p. 667.
^ Neuer, Libertson & Yoshida 1990, p. 48.
^ a b Harris 2011, p. 163.
^ a b Meech-Pekarik 1982, p. 93.
^ Watanabe 1984, pp. 680–681.
^ Watanabe 1984, p. 675.
^ Salter 2001, p. 12.
^ Weisberg, Rakusin & Rakusin 1986, p. 7.
^ a b Weisberg 1975, p. 120.
^ Jobling & Crowley 1996, p. 89.
^ Meech-Pekarik 1982, p. 96.
^ Weisberg, Rakusin & Rakusin 1986, p. 6.
^ Jobling & Crowley 1996, p. 90.
^ Meech-Pekarik 1982, pp. 101–103.
^ Meech-Pekarik 1982, pp. 96–97.
^ Merritt 1990, p. 15.
^ a b Mansfield 2009, p. 134.
^ Ives 1974, p. 17.
^ Sullivan 1989, p. 230.
^ Ives 1974, p. 37–39, 45.
^ Jobling & Crowley 1996, pp. 90–91.
^ a b Ives 1974, p. 80.
^ Meech-Pekarik 1982, p. 99.
^ Ives 1974, p. 96.
^ Ives 1974, p. 56.
^ Ives 1974, p. 67.
^ Gerstle & Milner 1995, p. 70.
^ Hughes 1960, p. 213.
^ King 2010, pp. 119, 121.
^ a b Seton 2010, p. 81.
^ Brown 2006, p. 22; Seton 2010, p. 81.
^ Brown 2006, p. 23; Seton 2010, p. 81.
^ Brown 2006, p. 21.
^ Merritt 1990, p. 109.
^ a b Munsterberg 1957, p. 181.
^ Statler 1959, p. 39.
^ Statler 1959, pp. 35–38.
^ Fiorillo 1999.
^ Penkoff 1964, pp. 9–11.
^ Lane 1962, p. 9.
^ Bell 2004, p. xiv; Michener 1959, p. 11.
^ Michener 1959, pp. 11–12.
^ a b Michener 1959, p. 90.
^ Bell 2004, p. xvi.
^ Sims 1998, p. 298.
^ a b Bell 2004, p. 34.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 50–52.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 53–54.
^ Bell 2004, p. 66.
^ Suwa 1998, pp. 57–60.
^ Suwa 1998, pp. 62–63.
^ Suwa 1998, pp. 106–107.
^ Suwa 1998, pp. 108–109.
^ Suwa 1998, pp. 101–106.
^ Harris 2011, p. 60.
^ Hillier 1954, p. 20.
^ Harris 2011, pp. 95, 98.
^ Harris 2011, p. 41.
^ Harris 2011, pp. 38, 41.
^ Harris 2011, pp. 124.
^ Seton 2010, p. 64; Harris 2011.
^ Seton 2010, p. 64.
^ a b Screech 1999, p. 15.
^ Harris 2011, pp. 128.
^ Harris 2011, p. 134.
^ a b c Harris 2011, p. 146.
^ Harris 2011, pp. 155–156.
^ Harris 2011, pp. 148, 153.
^ Harris 2011, p. 163–164.
^ Harris 2011, p. 166–167.
^ Harris 2011, p. 170.
^ King 2010, p. 111.
^ a b Fitzhugh 1979, p. 27.
^ Bell 2004, p. xii.
^ Bell 2004, p. 236.
^ Bell 2004, p. 235–236.
^ Fitzhugh 1979, pp. 29, 34.
^ Fitzhugh 1979, pp. 35–36.
^ a b c d e Faulkner & Robinson 1999, p. 27.
^ Penkoff 1964, p. 21.
^ Salter 2001, p. 11.
^ Salter 2001, p. 61.
^ Michener 1959, p. 11.
^ a b Penkoff 1964, p. 1.
^ a b Salter 2001, p. 64.
^ Statler 1959, pp. 34–35.
^ Statler 1959, p. 64; Salter 2001.
^ Bell 2004, p. 225.
^ Bell 2004, p. 246.
^ a b Bell 2004, p. 247.
^ Frédéric 2002, p. 884.
^ a b c Harris 2011, p. 62.
^ a b Marks 2012, p. 180.
^ Salter 2006, p. 19.
^ a b c d Marks 2012, p. 10.
^ Marks 2012, p. 18.
^ a b c Marks 2012, p. 21.
^ a b Marks 2012, p. 13.
^ Marks 2012, pp. 13–14.
^ Marks 2012, p. 22.
^ Merritt 1990, pp. ix–x.
^ Link & Takahashi 1977, p. 32.
^ Ōkubo 2008, pp. 153—154.
^ Harris 2011, p. 62; Meech-Pekarik 1982, p. 93.
^ a b King 2010, pp. 48–49.
^ Ishizawa & Tanaka 1986, p. 38; Merritt 1990, p. 18.
^ a b Harris 2011, p. 26.
^ a b Harris 2011, p. 31.
^ Bell 2004, p. 234.
^ Takeuchi 2004, pp. 118, 120.
^ Tanaka 1999, p. 190.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 3–5.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 8–10.
^ Bell 2004, p. 12.
^ Bell 2004, p. 20.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 13–14.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 14–15.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 15–16.
^ Hockley 2003, pp. 13–14.
^ Hockley 2003, pp. 5–6.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 17–18.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 19–20.
^ Yoshimoto 2003, p. 65–66.
^ Stewart 2014, pp. 28–29.
^ Stewart 2014, p. 30.
^ Johnson-Woods 2010, p. 336.
^ Morita 2010, p. 33.
^ Bell 2004, pp. 140, 175.
^ Kita 2011, p. 149.
^ Bell 2004, p. 140.
^ Hockley 2003, pp. 7–8.
^ Kobayashi & Ōkubo 1994, p. 216.
^ Ōkubo 2013, p. 31.
^ Ōkubo 2013, p. 32.
^ Kobayashi & Ōkubo 1994, pp. 216—217.
^ Ōkubo 2008, pp. 151—153.
^ Kobayashi & Ōkubo 1994, p. 217.
^ Ōkubo 2013, p. 43.
^ Kobayashi & Ōkubo 1994, p. 217; Bell 2004, p. 174.
^ Fiorillo 1999–2001.
^ Fleming 1985, p. 61.
^ Fleming 1985, p. 75.
^ Toishi 1979, p. 25.
^ Harris 2011, p. 180, 183–184.
^ Fiorillo 2001–2002a.
^ AFP–Jiji staff 2016.
^ Fiorillo 1999–2005.
^ Merritt 1990, p. 36.
^ Fiorillo 2001–2002b.
^ Lane 1962, p. 313.
^ Faulkner & Robinson 1999, p. 40.
^ a b Merritt 1990, p. 13.
^ Bell 2004, p. 38.
^ Merritt 1990, pp. 13–14.
^ Bell 2004, p. 39.
^ Checkland 2004, p. 107.
^ Garson 2001, p. 14.
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A Guide to the
Ukiyo-e Sites of the Internet
Ukiyo-e Techniques, an interactive collection of videos and animations
demonstrating the techniques of master printmaker Keiji Shinohara.
ukiyo-e.org, Japanese Woodblock Print Search -
extensive collection of digitized ukiyo-e images
Japanese Woodblock collection at the [https://www.loc.gov/ Library of
Ukiyo-e Collection at SOAS University of London
Visual arts portal
List of ukiyo-e terms
Woodblock printing in Japan
Utagawa school members
BNF: cb119397415 (d