Thursday, April 9, 2009


Ukiyo-e ~ Floating World Picture

Chikanobu Toyohara 1838-1912

Many of the Japanese art prints on my side bar and included in my Nakasendo Walk series are Ukiyo-e prints.

This art form rose to great popularity in the Edo period, from 1600 to 1868, which is the time of the samurai when the Nakasendo Way became heavily utilized. At this time Japan was under the rule of the shogunate and virtually isolated from the rest of the world.

Hanaogi - Chokosai Eisho

Ukiyo-e means floating world picture and refers to the pleasures of theatres, restaurants, teahouses, geisha and courtesans in the large city of Edo, present day Tokyo.

Ukiyo-e is a general term for a genre of Japanese woodblock prints produced in this time. It was a period in Japanese history of rapid urbanisation and the development of a class of merchants and artisans, who began writing stories and painting pictures and compiling books in need of illustration.

Naritaya Sansho by Sharaku

Many of the ukiyo-e prints, such as those of Utamaro and Sharaku were in fact posters for kabuki and Noh theatre, illustrations for novels, advertisements for brothels, idol portraits of popular actors and beautiful tea house girls.

Utagawa Kunisada 1786-1865

Poem illustration by Kuniyoshi

Many activities from city life were depicted in ukiyo-e: bulky sumo wrestlers, beautiful courtesans, also sexually explicit shunga for which artists and publishers were sometimes punished. Postcards and guidebooks also made use of ukiyo-e.

Shunga by Kunisada

Ukiyo-e was considered to be commercial art rather than fine art and the Japanese were rather taken aback when Westerners later valued ukiyo-e as fine art. It was not until the 20th century that the Japanese themselves, after the interest from abroad, particularly from the Dutch and the French, began to value ukiyo-e as art worth collecting.

This world of urban pleasures was offset by the Japanese traditional love of nature -landscapes, birds and flowers, and Japanese ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai, Kunisada and Hiroshige had an enormous impact on painting all over the world.

Nakatsugawa Bridge by Ando Hiroshige

One of the main reasons for the popularity of ukiyo-e prints was that they were affordable because they were mass produced which meant that you did not need to be wealthy to afford an original painting. For the price of a bowl of noodles you could own a woodblock print.

The first ukiyo-e were produced in black and white. Hishikawa Moronobu, was one of the original artists and was the most important ukiyo-e artist of his life time, 1618-1694.

Shunga by Moronobu

But a demand for colour saw a shift from adding colour by hand after the printing to the development of polychrome prints by using more than one block – one block for each colour. Okomura Masanobu and Suzuki Harunobu are said to be the first colour artists of colour prints called nishiki-e.
Although the artist was given credit for the final ukiyo-e print it was really a collaborative effort between the artist, his apprentices, the carver, printer, publisher and distributors, all working in concert.

Suzuki Harunobu

Broadly speaking ukiyo art can be divided into five different art periods and movements. But more about this next ukiyo-e posting...

Information sourced from Wikipedia,
and the books Hiroshige by Matthi Forrer,
Shin Hanga -The new print movement of Japan by Barry Till



  1. Good morning are you today?...what great information you have just given.
    On my stay in japan we were looking for some presents to take home with us,we came across this shop with prints from the Edo period hidden in a place back of the shop this man had many explicit prints which he was very secret about,the sexual prints were absolutely beautiful so we bought one for my mother back in Holland.
    It was on her wall for many years explicit it was! I think many people thought: Maria???..but she was very proud to own such valuable piece of art!

  2. Mona,
    that's a great story. At first glance in do not notice that some of these prints are in fact pornographic. I chose a few of the less obvious prints...
    I wish I had known more about Ukiyo-e when visiting Japan especially Mr Sekihawa's Nishiharu 65 year old print store in downtown Kyoto.

  3. Ooooh, now I know where I have to go when I get to Kyoto! Thank you once again!

  4. Tulsa - email coming to you...

  5. Interesting. I can't wait for the next post!

  6. Hello Tom,
    I'm glad you enjoyed ukiyo-e
    happy days

  7. There is really nothing as beautiful as a Japanese landscape painting. Whether they include "the" mountain or the sea, or both, they are a true tonic for my soul.

    Thank you!

  8. What interested me most about your post is that you quoted a period of time 1600-1868 which coincided with the baroque period in Europe (1600s). The reason why this detail piqued my curiosity is that at the moment I am doing some research for a post about Bach that will appear on my blog in a couple of weeks and I was attracted to some of the similarities between the paintings you uploaded and their counterparts from Europe circa 1600s. I don't mean technique, they are as far as they can possibly be, but aesthetic, the lady holding the tea cup for instance. Look at her dainty hands. Hard to believe that Japan was so isolated at this time in its history, but yup, that was the reality. Many thanks for another instructive and most interesting post. I have drawn to Japanese culture for some time and I am glad I found your blog, you explain this culture in such a detailed way.

    Greetings from London.

  9. Hi Delwyn,
    I am so glad you commented on my blog because now I get to see yours. (And you are from Queensland!!! :-)))
    I too have in my picture folder in my comp, the picture of the Japanese woman combing her hair which I admire at every now and then.
    Your pictures of flowers - the Magnolia and Hibiscus is gorgeous. AND you have a black cat!!!
    All my favourite things are here on your blog.

  10. Fascinating post. I am so thrilled to learn about the history of this artform. I have two little books, one called Hokusai's Views of Mt. Fiji and one called Hiroshige's Tokaido in Prints and Poetry. They are the size of post cards, with cloth-covered front and back covers and hand binding, and feature a wood-block print illustration and a poem on each two-page spread. I bought them at an auction, along with a portfolio contained three or four wood-block prints. I had no clue as to the history of the pieces. (I still haven't framed the prints).

  11. I know so little about art in general but I know what I like and I like these! Getting to know more about this form of art makes me like it even more...Thanks! I love the swallow print on your side bar...

  12. I would have never learned about this form of art if not for you. Thank you.

  13. Priya,
    welcome to Queensland, it's good to have you here. Do you know Au?
    The lady combing her hair in blue kimono has been a favourite of mine for many years - we have something in common there.
    Happy Days

  14. Meri
    thank you for your appreciative remarks and for the added story of your treasures.
    I'll write to you...anon

  15. Jennifer,
    I'm glad I have added something to your knowledge base then...theres more to come...

  16. Oliag,
    I am so glad that you have found the post interesting and informative.
    I am no art connoisseur and like you I go by what I like too. At the moment Japanese ukiyo stands out and also accompanies my walks...

  17. Reya,

    I think the romantic idealised Japanese scenes have that ability to calm and humour us...
    Plenty more where that came from!

  18. Mr Cuban
    email coming to you, thanks for the interest and encouragement to continue with these posts.

  19. I like that...'floating world picture'. Sounds very romantic...

  20. Yvonne, it's a beautifully colourful phrase for that nebulous place between morals and ethics respectability and licentiousness.

  21. What a fantastic, delicate art form. The prints are beautiful, and thankyou for introducing me to something of which I knoew nothing about!

  22. Hello Delphine,

    I am happy to have shown you the floating world...
    I will bring you more shortly.

  23. I thought I had commented before... guess I wasn't paying attention.
    Anyway, I've been attracted to this art since I was a teenager, but never bothered to look into the history of it. So thank you for the enlightenment!

  24. Violet
    I'm happy to have another keen reader. I will post the next piece this week.


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