Ukiyo-e prints emerged from the cultural tastes of the rapidly growing Edo and its merchant class, which was exploding in number and wealth. Being of a lower social class in Japan, the townspeople were denied access to the more refined entertainments of the aristocracy and samurai classes. As such, they created their own entertainment, in the pleasure quarters of Edo’s Yoshiwara, filled with tea-houses, theaters, restaurants and brothels.
The local celebrities of the day were the actors and high-class prostitutes (courtesans), and printmakers produced images of these idols for people to own, and as promotional material for the owners of the establishments.
Bijin-ga (literally - beautiful people pictures), along with actor prints were the leading theme in early Ukiyo-e, and would continue to be popular for the lifetime of the art form.
Artists would capture the most beautiful courtesans in their work; which would evolve over time, from representing the women as elongated, slender, other-worldly creatures, through to more physical, sensual sex symbols.
Torii Kiyonaga brought the idealised depiction of beautiful women to its zenith.
Bathhouse women by Torii Kiyonaga (1787)
But many believe that beauty prints reached their height with the master Kitagawa Utamaro, who developed a fuller, more sensual style, with all of the same refinement.
Three Beauties of the Present Day by Kitagawa Utamaro (1793)
As mentioned above, prints of popular Kabuki actors were a leading theme in early ukiyo-e.
One could perhaps compare actor prints with the poster industry; they were initially produced as advertisments for kabuki plays, but soon expanded into portraits of specific actors in their most compelling roles. Theater attendees wanted mementos of their favorite actors, and the actors themselves would commission portraits to heighten their fame.
Almost every great ukiyo-e master produced actor prints during their career. However, the genre hit new peaks around 1795, with two very different masters, Utagawa Kunisada and Toshusai Sharaku.
Plum: The Actors Arashi Kichisaburô III as Tôken Gonbei (R), Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi Kurobei (C), and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Yakko no Koman (L), from the series A Contemporary Suikoden, by Utagawa Kunisada
Kunisada had a long and extremely productive career. While he produced many different types of prints, he dominated the genre of actor portraits and scenes for years.
In sharp contrast, the enigmatic Sharaku burst onto the scene in 1784, produced a dazzling series of actor portraits and promptly disappeared just 10 months later.
The Actor Ôtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei in the Play "Koinyôbô Somewake Tazuna" - by Toshusai Sharaku
His portraits were revolutionary at the time, incorporating an element of satire, and focusing on less idealized depictions, with more psychological depth.
Learn More - Kunisada | Learn More - Sharaku
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Erotic prints known as “shunga” (literally “spring pictures”) were produced from the earliest days of ukiyo-e, and almost every artist has at least a few shunga prints in their catalogue.
As British Museum curator Tim Clark explained with reference to a great shunga exhibition, it is likely that “everybody in Japanese society, from the ruling class down to the ordinary townsperson down in the street, used and enjoyed shunga. This is a situation that would have been inconceivable in Europe at the same time. In the West we’ve come up with this rigid division between what we define as art on the one hand and what we declare to be obscene or pornographic on the other.”
The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (1814) by Hokusai
How Kansei reforms brought shift away from actors and beauties and to new expressions, likely to pass the censors and avoid the ire of the government…
Warriors and legends had always figured in Japanese prints, however they exploded in popularity thanks to a breakout series from Utagawa Kuniyoshi in (1827) entitled 108 Heroes of the Popular Water Margin.
Du Xing, The Devil Faced by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1843)
Based on a Chinese martial arts novel about a band of outlaws that rise up and fight against a corrupt administration, the series was an overnight hit in Edo and established Kuniyoshi as an artist in his own right.
Capitalizing on the opportunity to differentiate himself from the senior Kunisada at the Utagawa school (master of actor prints), as well as other artists, he forged forward with the warrior prints theme.
Kuniyoshi produced 100’s of warrior prints, known for their energy, dynamism and exquisite details.
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Likewise, birds and flowers were an innocuous subject for print designs, sure to keep the government censors happy. Also, exotic birds were a pastime, with birdhouses….
The detailed, realistic representation of the flora and fauna that we see in these prints is due to the influence of Western styles of zoological drawing. Around the time, printed zoological works from Western Europe had infiltrated Japanese society, and were being circulated, despite being banned by the Shogunate.
Few are familiar with Hokusai’s exceptional Large Flowers series.
Peonies and Butterfly - By Hokusai (1830)
The series is acclaimed by modern art historians but was not very popular at the time. There is little evidence that the series received any more than one print run.
The exquisite printing, fine details and playful poetry (kyoka) that we often see with birds and flowers prints, generally suggest they were produced for a wealthy, educated elite, in small numbers.
Such prints also often contain much symbolism, as in this Hokusai print of a pair of cranes.
Cranes on a Snow-covered Pine Tree - By Hokusai (1834)
While many would think of landscape as the primary genre in ukiyo-e prints, they might be surprised to find that landscapes were rarely the subject of artworks until 1830 - around 100 years after ukiyo-e printmaking began.
Typically, landscapes were solely used as backdrops for actors, beautiful women, or historical events. But by 1830, the time for landscape prints to dominate Japanese art had come.
Government censorship laws tightening, cracking down on prints of actors, courtesans and the like forced artists to become more creative. At the same time, stable conditions and a prospering middle class had made travel a favorite pastime of everyday people. Trips along major routes, to shrines and other famous places was now common, and a new sense of “a shared Japan” or nation was forming in people’s minds.
So, when Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji series, with the Great Wave, Red Fuji and another 34 landscape masterpieces was released in 1830, followed just 2 years later by Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido, the timing for this new genre was perfect.
Tama River in Musashi Province - By Hokusai (1830)
1st Station: Shinagawa - By Hiroshige (1833)
Taiko (Drum) Bridge and the Yuhi Mound at Meguro - By Hiroshige (1857)