Painting of a finely dressed Japanese woman in 16th-aminata fall kan forex style. Colour print of a colourfully made-up Japanese actor making a bold expression with his fingers extended, facing right.
Colour print of a closeup of a heavily made-up mediaeval Japanese woman peering through a translucent comb. Colour landscape print of a group of three walking to the left, forests and a tall mountain in the background. Princess Takiyasha Summons a Skeleton Spectre to Frighten Mitsukuni, Kuniyoshi, c. Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries.
The merchant class at the bottom of the social order benefited most from the city’s rapid economic growth. 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. Some ukiyo-e artists specialized in making paintings, but most works were prints. Since antiquity, 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.
Kanō Hideyori is one of the earliest Japanese paintings to feature the lives of the common people. During a prolonged period of civil war in the 16th century, a class of politically powerful merchants had developed. 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. 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.
The term “ukiyo”, which can be translated as “floating world”, was homophonous with an ancient Buddhist term signifying “this world of sorrow and grief”. The earliest ukiyo-e artists came from the world of Japanese painting. The Hikone screen may be the oldest surviving ukiyo-e work, dating to c. Around 1661, painted hanging scrolls known as Portraits of Kanbun Beauties gained popularity. By 1672, Moronobu’s success was such that he began to sign his work—the first of the book illustrators to do so. 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.
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. Ink and colour painting on silk, Kaigetsudō Ando, c. Ink and color painting on silk, Chōshun, c. 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 prints hand-tinted with orange and sometimes green or yellow. 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. 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. A trend against the idealism of the prints of Harunobu and the Torii school grew following Harunobu’s death in 1770. Harunobu’s idealism by focusing on contemporary urban fashions and celebrated real-world courtesans and geisha. 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.
A colour print of a close-up of the head and upper torso of a finely dressed Japanese woman. Behind her is a bamboo screen on which is depicted a similar woman’s head and upper torso. 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. 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.
A consistent high level of quality marks ukiyo-e of the late 18th-century, but the works of Utamaro and Sharaku often overshadow those other masters of the era. 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 the Edo prints, those of Kamigata tended to be portraits of kabuki actors. 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.
His work is marked by a lack of the sentimentality common to ukiyo-e, and a focus on formalism influenced by Western art. Though not often given the attention of their better-known forebears, the Utagawa school produced a few masters in this declining period. Following the deaths of Hokusai and Hiroshige and the Meiji Restoration of 1868, ukiyo-e suffered a sharp decline in quantity and quality. Synthetic pigments imported from Germany began to replace traditional organic ones in the mid-19th century.
Russo-Japanese Naval Battle at the Entrance of Incheon: The Great Victory of the Japanese Navy—Banzai! 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. The arrival in Edo of American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 led to the 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.