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Masters of The Floating World: Our Top Picks

Posted on March 11 2020

Masters of The Floating World: Our Top Picks

Have you heard of ukiyo-e, the art of woodblock printing in Edo period Japan? Have you seen the amazing prints that feature the life of socialites in pleasure districts, known as the floating world, of the time? We have a whole article about it here:

Exploring the Floating World of 18th Century Japan

Ukiyo-e has seen some stunning prints of skilled artists endure the test of time. It would be a shame not to share them. Readers, it’s time to meet the ukiyo-e masters!


Hishikawa Moronobu

He's considered a pioneer of the movement. By using his calligraphy talents and extensive knowledge of fabric dynamics, Hishikawa created flows and patterns of clothing in his designs, which made his prints unique at the time. And he was one of the first artists to explore the theme of beautiful women (bijin), part of which involves depicting their fashion and erotic scenes, and so it became a defining theme in ukiyo-e

Here’s an example: the suggestive, but rather tame cover print of Hishikawa’s erotica (shunga) series (which are often quite graphic and raunchy inside). 

"Two Lovers" (c. 1675-1680) by Hishikawa Moronobu


Another famous print is Beauty Looking Back. It's a perfect example of Hishikawa's mastery, seeing how he positions the woman character to accentuate her clothes and recreates intricate patterns of her clothing.

 Beauty Looking Back  by Hishikawa Moronobu

"Beauty Looking Back" by Hishikawa Moronobu 

Harunobu Suzuki

This ukiyo-e master produced hundreds of prints throughout his career, from erotica to courtesan portraits and Kabuki scenes, but he’s most famous for innovating a multi-colored printing technique and his own distinct design style - delicate, subtle, sophisticated scenes.


Lovers Walking in the Snow (Crow and Heron) by Suzuki Harunobu
"Lovers Walking in the Snow (Crow and Heron)" (c.1764–72) by Suzuki Harunobu


This print is considered one of the most romantic and melancholic depictions of lovers in ukiyo-e. Harunobu shows two lovers sharing an umbrella, but what makes it a masterpiece is how their slender figures and elegant lines, skillful embossing of the background and soft colors are used to enhance the emotional content of the print.

Torii Kiyonaga

Kiyonaga is the lesser known name on this list, mostly noted for beautiful women prints (bijin-ga). But, his works influenced the impressionist Edgar Degas, who was inspired by unique compositions and intimate content in prints like this one: 


Interior of a Bathhouse by Torii Kiyonaga"Interior of a Bathhouse" (c. 1787) by Torii Kiyonaga

Kitagawa Utamaro

One of the most famous of ukiyo-e masters, he was known for the distinct but subtle half and big-head portraits (okubi-e) of women, and the insight to capture their private lives.


Woman Reading a Letter by Kitagawa Utamaro
Our reproduction of "Woman Reading a Letter" (c. 1787–1798) by Kitagawa Utamaro 


Three Beauties of the Present Day by Kitagawa Utamaro"Three Beauties of the Present Day" (c. 1793) by Kitagawa Utamaro


Most of his other prints were explicit erotica, so some of his fame can be attributed to it, like this 12-print collection Poem of the Pillow. It’s known to have influenced the European artists Audrey Beardsley, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso.


Scene from Poem of the Pillow by Kitagawa Utamaro
Scene from Poem of the Pillow (c. 1788) by Kitagawa Utamaro


Tōshūsai Sharaku

Very little is known about Sharaku. He produced mostly kabuki actor portraits, but the works were considered controversial due to his bold realism style, so he only gained popularity in the 20th century when modern critics acknowledged his skill as something on par with Rembrandt. The French painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was inspired by Sharaku’s exaggerated grimaces and dramatic poses in the actor prints.


Kabuki Actor Ōtani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei in the Play "The Colored Reins of a Loving Wife" (1794) by Tōshūsai Sharaku

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Said to be a natural talent, Kuniyoshi was very successful in his time. His best known work is a series 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. Its warrior prints became so popular, Kuniyoshi started receiving requests for tattoo designs based on them. The most unique aspect of his works was the combination of traditional Japanese culture and folklore with Western art elements.


Doguya Jinza Hokaibo Bokon Shimobe Gunsuke by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Our reproductions of "Doguya Jinza Hokaibo Bokon Shimobe Gunsuke" triptychs by Utagawa Kuniyoshi


Kuniyoshi produced in other genres as well, like landscapes and pictures of beautiful women (bijin-ga). 


Ichi by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Our reproduction of "Ichi" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi


Utagawa Hiroshige 

Hiroshige, who grew up in a samurai family and worked as a firefighter, gave up his role the moment he was accepted by an Utagawa to an apprenticeship in painting and print design. He had some tough luck and his artistic genius went unnoticed for a long time. The print series that brought him fame, The 53 Stations of the Tokaido (1832-1833), depict a journey along the road connecting Edo to Kyoto. It doesn’t sound very impressive without context, but there’s a good reason why it became popular: as travel restrictions in Japan were lifted, the public started appreciating travel art.


Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake by Utagawa Hiroshige
"Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake" (1857) by Utagawa Hiroshige


Some of his other works were bird-and-flower pictures (kacho-e), which showed his love for tender, lyrical landscapes. Like many ukiyo-e masters, he inspired Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of Europe. Van Gogh even copied some of Hiroshige’s prints!


Plum Estate, Kameido by Utagawa Hiroshige
"Plum Estate, Kameido" (1857) by Utagawa Hiroshige 


Katsushika Hokusai

When it comes to Hokusai, there are too many works to choose from as he’s the most popular artist of the movement. That’s how good he was. Raised as an artisan, he produced many artworks from a young age until he dedicated himself to ukiyo-e. Like Hiroshige, his most successful works depicted famous places for travel (meisho-e), like the landscape series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1826-1833).

You might recognize one of its most iconic prints:

 the Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai

Our Reproduction of "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" (c. 1830 - 1832) by Katsushika Hokusai

Like Kuniyoshi, Hokusai adhered to the trend of using Western perspectives and innovative composition in his designs. The print of the famous wave influenced countless European artists like Claude Monet, who had it displayed at his home, Paul Gauguin, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Gustave Klimt, Édouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh and Franz Marc, who all collected his prints and some of those compositions even influenced the development of Art Nouveau.


Fine Wind, Clear Morning by Katsushika Hokusai
Our Reproduction of "Fine Wind, Clear Morning" by Katsushika Hokusai


And this list could go on forever because there’s no shortage of amazing ukiyo-e prints, We’ve only covered the original masters of the early and golden ages of the movement. If you’d like to keep exploring, we won’t leave you hanging!


CLICK HERE to see our Japanese woodblock print reproductions with works of Kuniyoshi, Hokusai and many other great artists!

FOLLOW our Straight From the Studio blog for more pieces on unique art movements!


Exploring the Floating World of 18th Century Japan




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