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What Is Ukiyo-e?

The Roots of Ukiyo-e

The word “ukiyo” refers to the world of people, and “e” means "picture." Ukiyo-e originally depicted the everyday life of people living in the city of Kyoto in the late sixteenth century. It became a popular art form in the Edo period (1603–1867), though, thanks partly to advances in woodblock printing techniques. Also, familiar subjects, such as kabuki actors and beautiful women, came to be depicted around this time, and books carrying illustrations by young artists were widely circulated. Those artist became ukiyo-e artists.

Mikaeri Bijin (A Beauty Looking over Her Shoulder) by Hishikawa Moronobu
This ukiyo-e print of a woman who has stopped mid-walk to look back is the best-known work of Hishikawa Moronobu.

History of Woodblock Techniques

Most ukiyo-e are made using woodblocks. At first, most ukiyo-e were made using the same sumi (black ink) used in calligraphy for line work; later on, brushes were used to add color as well. As demand grew for more and more colors to be added, a technique was developed where the colored parts could be added by printing too, instead of by brush. Only two or three colors could be used at first, but as woodblock technology advanced, techniques using many different colors were perfected.

Making a woodblock print was a three-step process: (1) painting a design with ink, (2) carving the design onto wooden blocks, and (3) applying colored ink to the blocks and pressing a sheet of paper on it to print the design. There were specialists for each of these steps. The entire process took a lot of work, but once the block was completed, it was easy to make reproductions of the same design. The prints mass-produced in this way were circulated widely among the public, and ukiyo-e developed into a popular art form.

Seiro Geishasen Itsutomi (The Geisha Itsutomi) by Chobunsai Eishi
This print shows a woman called Itsutomi with a shamisen pick in her hand, stood by the shamisen on the floor. It represents the Kansei era (1789–1801) in which tomimoto-bushi music was popular.

Ukiyo-e Genres

As ukiyo-e developed into a popular art, subjects related to entertainment were often printed. Yakusha-e were portraits of actors in kabuki plays, another traditional art form that is unique to Japan; they were sort of like the posters and photographs of movie stars that you can get today. Bijin-ga depicted the beautiful women of Edo (present-day Tokyo), a bit like pictures and posters of pop stars today.

Sandaime Otani Oniji no Kawashima Jibugoro (Otani Oniji III as Kawashima Jibugoro) by Toshusai Sharaku
This depicts the scene just after Kawashima Jibugoro (played by Otani Oniji III) has committed a murder in the kabuki play "Nihonmatsu Michinoku Sodachi."

Landscapes didn't become the subjects of ukiyo-e until later, when people became better off and could go on trips for leisure. Landscape prints were used as today's equivalent of postcards.

Influence on Western Arts

At around the end of the nineteenth century, European painters came across ukiyo-e prints that were being used as wrapping paper. Ukiyo-e made a great impact on the painters in terms of the expressive curves, bold use of colors, and liberal designs of ukiyo-e.

Until then, western artists who painted realism or religious art had never come across the sorts of techniques that ukiyo-e artists used. Ukiyo-e thus had a great influence on such Impressionist painters as Vincent van Gogh.

Furyu Rokkasen: Sojo Henjo (Six Famous Poets: The Priest Henjo) by Suzuki Harunobu
This ukiyo-e shows two women standing on a stone bridge while gazing at the surface of a pond that is covered in a blanket of lotus leaves.

(Tokyo National Museum)
Source: ColBase