From Academic Kids

Japanese Name
Kanji 浮世絵 or 憂き世絵
Hiragana うきよえ
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View of Mount Fuji from Satta Point in the Suruga Bay, ukiyo-e by Hiroshige, published 1859

Ukiyo-e (usually written 浮世絵, meaning "pictures of the floating world", but also 憂き世絵, "pictures of the sad world") are paintings developed in the Edo period (16031867), many of them becoming widespread as woodblock prints in Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries (late Edo period). Ukiyo-e feature motifs of the theater and pleasure quarters.

The art form arose in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during the second half of the 17th century, originating with the single color works of Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. At first, only India ink was used, but in the 18th century Suzuki Harunobu developed the technique of polychrome printing.

Ukiyo-e were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were meant for mainly townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. The original subject of Ukiyo-e was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment district. Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers and popular actors would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later on landscapes also became popular. Political subjects, and individuals above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and actors) were not sanctioned in these prints and very rarely appeared. Sex was not a sanctioned subject either, but continually appeared in ukiyo-e prints. Artists and publishers were sometimes punished for creating these sexually explicit shunga.



Missing image
Kunisada From The 53 Stations of the Tokaido, 1852.

The urbanization of the late 16th century led to the development of a class of rōnin, merchants, and artisans who began writing stories and painting pictures, compiled together in ehon (絵本, picture books, books with stories and picture illustrations) or novels, e.g. Tales of Ise (Ise-monogatari, 1608) by Honami Koetsu. Ukiyo-e were often used for illustrations of these books, but came into their own as single-sheet prints (e.g. postcards or kakemono-e), or were posters for the kabuki theater. Inspirations were initially Chinese tales and artworks. Many stories were based on urban life and culture, guidebooks were also popular. Hishikawa Moronobu's works became very influential after the 1670s. He already used polychrome painting.

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Toshusai Sharaku – Otani Oniji II, dated 1794.
The Kabuki actor Otani Oniji II in the role of Yakko (manservant) Edobe.

In the mid-18th century, techniques allowed for full-color printing, called nishiki-e, and the ukiyo-e that are reproduced today on postcards and calendars, date from this period on. Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Sharaku were the prominent artists of this period. After studying European artworks receding perspective entered the pictures and other ideas were picked up. Katsushika Hokusai's pictures depicted mostly landscapes and nature. His Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景, Fugaku sanjurokkei) were published starting around 1831. Ando Hiroshige and Kunisada also published many pictures drawn on motifs from nature.

In 1842, as part of the Tenpo reforms, pictures of courtesans, geisha and actors (e.g. onnagata) were banned. Pictures with these motifs experienced some revival though, when they were permitted again.

During the Kaei era (18481854), many foreign merchant ships came to Japan. The ukiyo-e of that time reflect the cultural changes. Following the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japan became open to imports from the West, including photography and printing techniques. While ukiyo-e went out of fashion in Japan during the bunmei-kaika (文明開化 , Japan's Westernization movement) it became a source of inspiration in Europe for cubism and many impressionist painters, such as van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Klimt, and many others. This influence has been called Japonism.

Ukiyo-e are still produced today and are influential in many ways, inspiring, for example, manga.

Making of ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e prints were made using the following procedure:

  • The artist produced a master drawing in ink
  • Craftsmen glued this drawing, face-down to a block of wood, cutting away the areas where the paper was white, thus leaving the drawing, in reverse, as a relief print on the block, but destroying the drawing.
  • This block was inked and printed, making near-exact copies of the original drawing.
  • These prints were in turn glued, face-down, to blocks and those areas of the design which were to be printed in a particular color were left in relief. Each of these blocks prints at least one color in the final design.
  • The resulting set of woodblocks were inked in different colors and sequentially impressed onto paper. The final print bore the impressions of each of the blocks, some printed more than once to obtain just the right depth of color.

Important artists

Important Ukiyo-e artists include:

Sample Ukiyo-e are available on pages of individual artists.

External links

de:Ukiyo-e et:Ukiyo-e es:Ukiyo-e fr:Ukiyo-e nl:Ukiyo-e ja:浮世絵 pl:Ukiyo-e


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