Posted on March 11 2020
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:
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!
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
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.
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.
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" (c. 1787) by Torii Kiyonaga
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.
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.
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
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.
Kuniyoshi produced in other genres as well, like landscapes and pictures of beautiful women (bijin-ga).
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.
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!
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:
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.
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!