The name of the art form, ukiyo-e, translates to “paintings of the floating world”. They are Japanese
woodblock prints that flourished during the Edo Period (1603 - 1867) and depicted subjects associated with
impermanence and detachment from ordinary life. Among these subjects were the popular geisha, sumo,
and kabuki actors set in this after-hours world. Later, painted scenes from nature became a subject matter
The themes in ukiyo-e focused on fleeting beauty and evanescent worlds; it was an escape from the boring and mundane world of responsibilities in everyday life. At first, Ukiyo-e artworks were all monochromatic and printed in black ink only. However, Suzuki Harunobu developed polychrome printing by the 18th century.
Ukiyo-e art was originally intended for the lower class as it was very affordable to purchase and could be easily mass produced. Although it was initially by and for the non-elite classes, its artistic and technical excellence is consistently remarkable.
From its earliest days, Ukiyo-e texts and images often referred to themes of classical, literary, and historical sources. At the same time, it expanded to reflect modern tastes and innovations over its development. The result was an art that was both populist and highly sophisticated. Ukiyo-e presented both the historical and all that was current, elegant, contemporary, and popular. The ordinary was transformed into the extraordinary in the hands of the artist.
Each image was created through a collaboration of four skilled individuals: the artist who designed the works and drew them in ink, the carver who carved the designs into a woodblock, the printer who applied pigments to the woodblock and printed each color on handmade paper, and the publisher who coordinated the efforts of the artists and marketed the artworks. In spite of this collaborative effort, only the artist and publisher were almost always accredited.
Midway through the 18th century, new techniques were created to allow the full color printing and ukiyo-e we see today on calendars and postcards. Some of the most famous artists during this period were Utamaro, Hokusai, Sharaku, and Hiroshige.
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 - 1806) is well known for his depictions of beautiful women from tearooms, shops, and pleasure quarters in Edo. He is also renowned for designing many beautifully illustrated books in ukiyo-e history.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849) is notably famous for his creation of The Great Wave of Kanagawa, one of the most recognizable pieces in Japanese art. His nature scenes and series “Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji” started an entire landscape style in ukiyo-e art and is very well known in Japanese culture.
Ukiyo-e prints are still a substantial part of Japan’s cultural identity. Many elements from prominent pieces are incorporated in modern works. You can find reproductions of ukiyo-e with ease at souvenir shops for reasonable prices. Ukiyo-e works are personal favorites among visitors to Japan.