Bijin-ga, Beautiful Japanese Women prints, an ukiyo-e sub-genre

1. Prelude

Hello everyone and welcome to my article on Bijin-ga. In this article, I will talk about the Bijin-ga, his history, his main artists and beautiful woodblock prints of this sub-genre of Ukiyo-e.

Reading this article will take less than 15 minutes.

Please, enjoy your reading and don’t hesitate to comment. If I made any mistake, I will do my best to correct it as quickly as possible.

Summary

  1. Prelude
  2. Bijin-ga definition
  3. Etymology of Bijin-ga
  4. The origins of Bijin-ga
    • Edo period and their beautiful women
    • Famous artist of the Bijin-ga style
      • Kitagawa Utamaro
      • Suzuki Harunobu
      • Shinsui Itō
      • Yōshū Chikanobu
      • Uemura Shōen
      • Torii Kiyonaga
  5. Conclusion

2. Bijin-ga definition

Bijin-ga is a Japanese art sub-genre of Ukiyo-e which depicts beautiful women; Ukiyo-e describing idealized images of the courtesans wearing(or not) a vibrant display of cascading kimonos or kabuki actors playing female characters can be included in the Bijin-ga genre.

The word Bijin-ga can be found in multiple orthography, such as Bijinga

3. Etymology of Bijin-ga

In Japanese the word “Bijin-ga” is written like this:

美人画

As you can see this word is composed of 3 characters (3 kanjis):

  • The first kanji is 美 which means “beautiful” and his reading is “bi”.
  • The second kanji is 人 which means “person” and his reading is “jin” or “hito”.
  • The third kanji is 画 which means “picture” and his reading is “ga”.

When we translate this Japanese word into English:

Picture of Beautiful Person

4. The origins of Bijin-ga

Edo period and their beautiful women.

Bijin-ga is an artistic style of ukiyo-e which is intertwined with the pleasure district of Japan. There used to be 3 of them in the big cities of the Edo period. During the beginning of the Edo period, prostitution were widespread and uncontrolled, therefore, to counter this situation, the Tokugawa shogunate restricted prostitution to a few district: Shimabara for Kyōto, Shinmachi for Ōsaka, and Yoshiwara for Edo.

This is in these places that the ukyio-e artist found their beautiful women model (bijin), from there was born the bijin-ga style.

Women Holding a Pipe and a Round Fan, by Kitagawa Utamaro, c.1797, bijin-ga(Women Holding a Pipe and a Round Fan, by Kitagawa Utamaro, c.1797)

Pleasure district, restriction, fashion and ukiyo-e

During the Edo period, there was a regulation on the dress code for everyone in society, yet, it was very difficult to enforce such regulation. This dress code regulation were to identify social rank and privilege for each individual which were encouraged for their imitation and appropriation enforcing the cast system.

In these regulations, prostitutes were supposed to wear only simple blue robes, yet, these laws were rarely enforced. Despite this situation, the pleasure district were the place for fashion during the Edo period, courtesans were competing with each other to attract the most customer which created innovation in the fashion world of the time, rivaling with stylish kimono, beautiful accessories, concerning hairstyles, makeup, and even the manner of wearing kimono. Fashion was so important in Yoshiwara that it frequently dictated the fashion trends for the rest of Japan.

Karauta of the Chôjiya, by Utagawa Hisanobu, c.1801, bijin-ga(Karauta of the Chôjiya, by Utagawa Hisanobu, c.1801)

In this unique world in the Edo period, the caste system was also omnipresent, the indentured servants of the segregated pleasure districts were also classified in a hierarchical structure. The high-ranking ladies often dressed in the highest fashion of the time, with bright colorful silk kimonos and expensive and elaborate hair decorations. Also, there was a symbol always present in their garment which represented their house and rank, this was shown by their kimonos patterns, design and style, but also from their fan design.

Famous artist of the Kacho-e style

Kitagawa Utamaro

Kitagawa Utamaro was an ukiyo-e artist which could enjoy fame during his lifetime due to his hard work. He was able to produce more than 2000 known prints. He was mainly knowned for his bijinga art, yet, he also created some nature studies, specializing in insects.

Fan on Finger Tips, by Kitagawa Utamaro, c. Edo period, bijin-ga(Fan on Finger Tips, c. Edo period)
Saishutsu - Famous Six Beauties, by Kitagawa Utamaro, c.1795, bijin-ga(Saishutsu – Famous Six Beauties, c.1795)
The Hour of the Snake, by Kitagawa Utamaro, c. 1790, bijin-ga(The Hour of the Snake, c. 1790)
Three Women with Bills for Sweets, by Kitagawa Utamaro, c.1789, bijin-ga(Three Women with Bills for Sweets, c.1789)

Suzuki Harunobu

Suzuki Harunobu is a famous ukiyo-e artist which was known for his innovation in the genra. He is known for having invented the nishiki-e in 1765. Nishiki-e is an ukiyo-e which was printed in full-color, which made obsolete the precedent method limited to only 2 to 3 colors.

Harunobu was a descendant of a samourai family which enable him to have a lot of connection with the shogunate (despite his family being banned from Edo for having done business in Gambling industry of the time), he had a vast network of samourai friend which became his patron, then, in turn made Harunobu wealthy and with the luxury to do a lot of experiment, enabling him to innovate. He experimented with better woods for the prints, changed from catalpa to cherry wood, and he had the opportunity to used rare and expensive colors which made his work more vivid.

Yet, the most noticeable innovation was in the ability to create full color prints which was done by using many separate blocks for each colors for a single image. He used this technique to create prints with up to 10 different colors on a single ukiyo-e. The birth of this technique date was traced thanks to his first application in a calendar of the year 1765.

Harunobu used his art in many different theme of the ukiyo-e genre, from classical poems to contemporary beauties.

Combing Hair,by Suzuki Harunobu, c.1769, bijin-ga(Combing Hair, c.1769)
Courtesan Walking in the Snow, by Suzuki Harunobu, c.1769, bijin-ga(Courtesan Walking in the Snow, c.1769)
Praying for Rain, by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1770, bijin-ga(Praying for Rain, c. 1770)
Woman Gazing at the Moon, by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1766, bijin-ga(Woman Gazing at the Moon, c. 1766)


Shinsui Itō

Shinsui Itō was a ukiyo-e japanese artist of the 20th century. He was a member of the shin-hanga art movement and one of his main figures, which revitalized the traditional art after it began to decline with the advent of photography in the early 20th century.

Shinsui was a famous and well known figure in the japanese society, he won and receive many awards during his lifetime. He was made into an “intangible cultural properties” (mukei bunkazai) for his woodblock talents, which is the same as being nowadays Living National Treasure. He also received the Order of the Rising Sun in 1970.

Before the Mirror, by Ito Shinsui, c. 1916, bijin-ga(Before the Mirror, c. 1916)
Maiko, by Ito Shinsui, c.1935, bijin-ga(Maiko, c.1935)
No. 0 - Grace (1), by Ito Shinsui, c. 1931, bijin-ga(No. 0 – Grace (1), c. 1931)
No. 6- Hanging a Mosquito Net (1), by Ito Shinsui, c.1931, bijin-ga(No. 6- Hanging a Mosquito Net (1), c.1931)


Yōshū Chikanobu

Yōshū Chikanobu was a Japanese soldier, at the beginning of the Meiji restoration, during his youth, he fought battle in Hokkaido and he was recognized for his bravery. Afterward, he decided to pursue a carrier as an artist and went to become an Ukiyo-e artist in Tokyo.

Chikanobu was an ukiyo-e artist which has drawn a lot of different subjects, his work ranged from bijin-ga, kacho-ga and kabuki-e, as well as japanese mythology and battle scenes. Chikanobu was an ukiyo-e master recognized for his bijin-ga and women’s fashion. In his work, we can find a variety of fashion from traditional clothing to western one, also, the changes in women’s coiffures and make-up overtime from the end of Edo period fashion style to the beginning of the Meiji period, exemplifying the concept of “furumekashii/imamekashii”.

Bunsei, by Toyohara Chikanobu, c.1897, bijin-ga(Bunsei, c.1897)
Houreki, by Toyohara Chikanobu, c. 1897, bijin-ga(Houreki, c. 1897)
True Beauty, by Toyohara Chikanobu, c. 1897, bijin-ga(True Beauty, c. 1897)
Fire Fly, by Toyohara Chikanobu, c. 1896, bijin-ga(Fire Fly, c. 1896)


Uemura Shōen

Uemura Shōen was a female japanese artist specializing in Ukiyo-e. She has shown talent for art at a young age, and she knew fame at the age of 15. In 1890, she was exhibiting her work and winning awards in official art contest, then the Duke of Connaught bought her art (The Beauty of the Four Seasons) and it raised her to celebrity status.

She is recognize for her new techniques in the bijin-ga ukiyo-e style, she combined the themes of both Noh and women in a single composition. Her most famous piece of art is Jo-no-mai, which is characterized by a strong feeling of majesty, with a large central figure against an empty background. She was the first woman to be awarded the Order Of Culture for Jo no mai, which became an Important Culture Property.

Shōen reportedly said “Never once did I paint a work with the expectation that it would be a fine work as long as the woman depicted was beautiful. My earnest hope is that all my works are like fragrant jewels, always with a sense of fresh purity, never with even an iota of the vulgar”

Noh Dance Prelude (jo no mai), by Uemura Shōen, c.1936, bijin-ga(Noh Dance Prelude (jo no mai), c.1936)
Ghost with Sword, by Uemura Shoen, c. 1923, bijin-ga(Ghost with Sword, c. 1923)
Spring outside, by Uemura Shoen, bijin-ga(Spring outside)
Beauty and plum blossom, by Uemura Shoen, bijin-ga(Beauty and plum blossom)


Torii Kiyonaga

Torii Kiyonaga was a Japanese ukiyo-e artist of the Edo period in the Torii school. After the death of the Torii head master, he become the Torii school head. Kiyonaga was famous for his bijin-ga style, he drew women very tall, seemingly fuller and more mature than his predecessor.

Kiyonaga was adopted in the Torii family and was praised for his bijin-ga beauty despite his heritage and upbringing being from the commoner class.

A Leading Courtesan, by Torii Kiyonaga, c.1781, bijin-ga(A Leading Courtesan, c.1781)
The Third Princess (Onna San no Miya), by Torii Kiyonaga, c.1781, bijin-ga(The Third Princess (Onna San no Miya), c.1781)
Woman in Bathrobe and Mother Playing with Baby, by Torii Kiyonaga, c. 1785, bijin-ga(Woman in Bathrobe and Mother Playing with Baby, c. 1785)
Young Girl and Four Attendants, by Torii Kiyonaga, c. 1784, bijin-ga(Young Girl and Four Attendants, c. 1784)


Conclusion

Here you have it, I have presented to you some of the bijin-ga artist. But, there are a lot of them out there, therefore, I have hand picked today’s list. I hope you enjoyed it.

For website touring visitor

When you have finished reading this article, please, take a look at my portfolio.

AkaiHibana - RedSparkleArt- Author-Painter-ukiyo-e artist- kachoga artist

AkaiHibana

AkaiHibana is a young artist with the objective to master the art of drawing Ukiyo-e bird and flower (花鳥画 – Kacho-ga).