November 04, 2019 4 min read

The ukiyo-e prints that we know and love have a distinct look; aesthetics that make them instantly recognisable. But in a movement that lasted over 300 years, this wasn’t always the case. It took many innovative, courageous artists to shake the ground of the floating world and form one of the largest and most important movements in the history of art.

Ukiyo-e's beginnings

The pioneer of ukiyo-e was Hishikawa Moronobu. Although not the original founder, he popularised the art form. He formed a mature style of designing and paved the way for generations to come. His works are the earliest pieces that have classical ukiyo-e attributes.

The original printing method for ukiyo-e was brought from China, where it had been used to reproduce Buddhist scriptures and their accompanying illustrations. This is why early ukiyo-e designs were carved out of a single wooden block and printed using black ink.

Here you can see one of Moronobu’s first ever pieces, printed in 1670.

 “Four of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune” - Moronobu, 1670

“Four of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune” - Moronobu, 1670

Although only printed in black, the monochromatic nature of this print provides drama and texture, allowing the viewer to marvel at Moronobu’s intricate linework, from the thick creases of the tree bark to its spiky blooms. 

Ukiyo-e united typical scenes of the real world with the characters and stories of the fantastical. In this image you can see a woman (most-likely a courtesan) entertaining the Gods under a tree, who’d stopped along their travels. 

The move into colour

After nearly 100 years of monochrome printing, ukiyo-e finally moved into full-colour printing. Previously, coloured prints would’ve only been achieved through the painstaking process of hand-colouring, which was rendered obsolete when Suzuki Harunobu entered the scene. 

After spending the majority of his career colouring prints by hand, Harunobu was fed up. In 1760, he shook the ukiyo-e world by inventing ‘Nishiki-e’; a printing method that used separately carved wooden blocks for separate colours. Along with his engraver, Kinroku, they innovated ukiyo-e production. However, Harunobu’s days of creating Nishiki-e were short lived, as he died just 5 years later.

"Woman Visiting Shrine at Night" - Harunobu

"Woman Visiting Shrine at Night" - Harunobu 

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This is one of the first of Harunobu’s Nishiki-e prints. This dynamic piece shows his seamless marrying of colour with energetic black linework, giving the effect trees blowing in the breeze. Harunobu’s colour palette is muted, due to the natural qualities of early inks used in Nishiki-e, and the nature of the handmade paper.

Shifting Perspectives

After nearly 30 years of a thriving ukiyo-e scene later, finally in polychrome, the movement had grown and prospered across Japan. It wasn’t until 1794 and the arrival of the mysterious artist,Tōshūsai Sharaku, that the once stable world of ukiyo-e was disrupted.

Appearing completely out of nowhere, Sharaku began making prints that were, in fact, incredibly unpopular. He designed portraits that highlighted the hidden truths of his subject’s personalities, often unflatteringly. 

“Ōtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei” - Sharaku, 1794

“Ōtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei” - Sharaku, 1794

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Ukiyo-e was popular for its use of underlying metaphorical meanings, usually of a poetic or spiritual nature. But the portraits were incredibly idealised, no artist dared show any negative truths that were deemed insulting. Sharaku, however, mastered the craft of ‘psychological realism’; fascinated by the person underneath the mask.

This piece is perhaps his most famous, depicting a kabuki actor in his role as an evil henchman. His depiction of Oniji with an exaggerated nose and an anatomically incorrect figure seems to mock the actor - perhaps satirising the art of kabuki as a whole. 

His works were noticeably minimal, with limited colours and patterning. He nearly always used a deep grey background - which was achieved using a ground-down paste, ‘mica’, made from mother of pearl. 

After only 10 months of ukiyo-e production, all traces of Sharaku disappeared and multiple theories exist around the mystery. To learn more about Sharaku, click here to read our in-depth biography of his life, work and disappearance.

The great wave enters the West

It was around the same time as Sharaku that the great ukiyo-e master, Katsushika Hokusai, began designing prints. Throughout his artistic career, Hokusai was a trailblazer for many areas of ukiyo-e and Japanese art - even being the first artist to coin the phrase ‘Manga’. He was wildly popular in Japan, and made prints in every genre and subject matter. But it wasn’t until his iconic series, “36 Views of Mount Fuji”, that he gained widespread international recognition. 

Although it reached the west around 20 years after it was produced, Hokusai’s Mount. Fuji series boomed overseas. Perhaps the most famous piece in the series is the first: the great wave. The huge, aggressive wave looms over some fishing boats, stretched out like claws, seemingly about to swallow up Mount Fuji in the distance.

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” - Hokusai, 1829-33

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” - Hokusai, 1829-33

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After trade opened between East and West in the 1850’s, a fever quickly spread across Europe for everything Japanese - ukiyo-e, jewellery, ceramics, fans - you name it, they wanted it. 

It was this piece and many others that influenced Western artists, such as Degas, Van Gogh and Toulous-Lautrec, to name a few. The arrival of ukiyo-e in Europe established the movement ‘Japonisme’, and inspired paintings as iconic as Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’. 

Continue browsing our ‘Read & Learn’ blogs for introductory and in-depth articles about ukiyo-e, or visit individual art pages and dive into the rich world of Japan’s art history. 


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