The History of Ukiyo-e in short

1. Prelude

Hello everyone and welcome to my article on Ukiyo-e. In this article, I will talk about the meaning of the word Ukiyo-e and his etymology, then I will present the history of ukiyo-e in short using the major artists through time.

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. Ukyo-e definition
  3. Etymology of Ukiyo-e
  4. The History of Ukiyo-e in short
    • Pre-history
    • Japanese woodblock print appearance (late 17th century)
    • Ukiyo-e during the mid-18th century
    • The golden age of Ukiyo-e (late 18th century)
    • Japanese woodblock print during the 19th century, bird, flower and landscape
    • A declining period for ukyo-e, the late 19th century
    • Ukiyo-e through the 20th century
    • Ukyo-e in the 21th century, an ukiyo-e pop culture
  5. Conclusion

2. Ukyo-e definition

Ukiyo-e is a Japanese art genre which depicts a vast variety of theme, such as people (sumo wrestler, geisha, female beauties, and kabuki actors), landscape, fauna and flora, everyday scene or folk history and fairy tales.

3. Etymology of Ukiyo-e

In Japanese the word “Ukiyo-e” is written like this:

浮世絵

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

  • The first kanji is 浮 which means “floating” and his reading is “uki” which comes from the verb 浮く (uku) which means “to float”.
  • The second kanji is 世 which means “world” and his reading is “yo”.
  • The third kanji is 絵 which means “picture” and his reading is “e”.

When we translate this Japanese word into English:

Picture of the Floating World

Now, when we only translate the two first kani 浮世 (ukiyo) into English, it means “floating world” or “transient world”. This is a metaphor which is referring to the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of the Edo period in Japan (1600–1867).
This is mostly a reference to the red light district of Tokyo during this time period, in which you could find a variety of brothel. Some famous ukiyo-e describes the everyday life of this quarter and their habitant.

Asai Ryōi celebrated this spirit in the novel Ukiyo Monogatari (“Tales of the Floating World”, 1661):
Living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.

Kinpei-daikoku-house
(Artist: Kunisada Utagawa (1823-1880) Description: Kinpei-daikoku house, the pleasure quarter at Shin-yoshiwara)

4. The History of Ukiyo-e in short.

Pre-history

We can start this genre history from two main inspirations, the first one is from the “yamato-e” style which is inspired by the Tang dynasty painting (Chinese dynasty from 618-907), and the second one is from the Chinese inspired “kara-e” style. These two inspirations composed most of the style during the Heian period (794-1185). At that time, art was not common and mostly reserved for religious group and wealthy part of the Japanese society.

Scene from The Tale of Genji
(Yamato-e, Scene from The Tale of Genji by Tosa Mitsuoki, from the 17th century Tosa school revival of the style.)
A mural painting of Li Xian's tomb
(Kara-e, A mural painting of Li Xian’s tomb at the Qianling Mausoleum, dated 706 CE, Tang dynasty)

Japanese woodblock print appearance (late 17th century)

Through an evolution of the yamato-e style which consists of a new style of outlined form, ukiyo-e was born.

Kinpei-daikoku-house
(The Hikone screen may be the oldest surviving ukiyo-e work(1624-44))



This painting credited to Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650) seems to be the oldest surviving ukiyo-e work in the world. There is also an assertion that he was the founder of the ukiyo-e genre in japan.

From this time on, the ukiyo-e demand keep raising and new wave of artist began to rise. Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694) is credited with the first production of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He was a very successful illustrator who worked on a lot of genre such as portraying beautiful female. His main treat was to product single-sheet images which could be used for different purposes such as stand-alone image.

Early woodblock print, Hishikawa Moronobu, late 1670s, Ukiyo-e
(Early woodblock print, Hishikawa Moronobu, late 1670s)



Following the death of Moronobu, prominient new artist appeared such as, Torii Kiyonobu I, which specialized in kabuki actors (yakusha-e) and Kaigetsudō Ando which specialized in courtesans (bijin-ga).

We can also count Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750), which is known for his high quality work on courtesans and the erotic portraits, and Miyagawa Choshun (1683-1752) which is known for his portrayed of everyday life.

Three Samurai, the Flowered Robe by Nishikawa Sukenobu
(Three Samurai, the Flowered Robe by Nishikawa Sukenobu)
A mural painting of Li Xian's tomb
(Hanging scroll by Nishikawa Sukenobu, ca. 1700s)

Ukiyo-e during the mid-18th century

During the 18th century, we can notice Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764), he was a great entrepreneur and self-promoter. He helped to create a new technique to improve ukiyo-e making process. One of his most notable innovations is the use of geometrical perspective in the genre. Western-style graphical perspectiveand increased use of printed colour were amongst the innovations Okumura Masanobu claimed.

Taking the Evening Cool by Ryōgoku Bridge
(Taking the Evening Cool by Ryōgoku Bridge, c. 1745)



Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) is to be noted; he realized some impressive ukiyo-e with their complex design and colors. During these ukiyo-e creation process, he had to use multiple woodblock for the multitude of color (up to 12~).

Returning sails of the towel rack
(Returning sails of the towel rack 1750 by Suzuki Harunobu)



Here is another artist noticeable for his work on perspective in ukiyo-e prints. This is Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814)

Sanjūsangen-dō in Kyoto by Toyoharu
(Perspective Pictures of Places in Japan: Sanjūsangen-dō in Kyoto by Toyoharu, c. 1772–1781)

The golden age of Ukiyo-e (late 18th century)

For the golden age of Ukiyo-e, we can cite multiple artists, such as Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) who specialized in beautiful woman and urban scenes, he is known for his large print.

Snowball Fight, by Torii Kiyonaga
(Snowball Fight, by Torii Kiyonaga, from the series Children at Play in Twelve Months, 1787)



In the late 18th century, there is Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) who specialize in beautiful woman drawing with disproportionate head.

Woman Wiping Sweat, by Kitagawa Utamaro
(Ase o fuku onna (Woman Wiping Sweat), Ukiyo-e, 1798 by Kitagawa Utamaro.)



Then, we have to talk about the famous Tōshūsai Sharaku (Appearance 1794), he was active only during 10 months, yet he had the time to create one of the most famous ukiyo-e. He specialized in portraits of kabuki actors with a great level of realism.

Ōtani Oniji III by Sharaku
(Ōtani Oniji III in the Role of the Servant Edobei, nishiki-e colour print, 1794)

Japanese woodblock print during the 19th century, bird, flower and landscape

Here is the appearance of one of the most famous ukyio-e artist, the legendary Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). His work was mostly focus on the everyday life, fauna, flora and landscape. We can cite the famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa and the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

Hokusai's Fine Wind
(Hokusai’s Fine Wind, Clear Morning 1831, ukiyo-e)
The Great Wave off Kanagawa
(The Great Wave off Kanagawa By Katsushika Hokusai, ukiyo-e)



We can also talk about Utagawa kuniyoshi (1797-1861) who also draw bird and landscape, yet he is known for his heroes series from the suikoden and the chushingura.

Hawk by Utagawa kuniyoshi
(Hawk by Utagawa kuniyoshi)
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Monster's Chūshingura
(Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Monster’s Chūshingura, ca. 1836, Acts 1–4 of the Kanadehon Chūshingura)



Then, to conclude this period, we have to talk about Hiroshige Utagawa (1797-1858) who is considered the greatest rival of Hokusai. Like Hokusai, he specialized in fauna and flora plus landscape. He is known for his series on The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō.

The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, hakone
(From The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō by Hiroshige Utagawa, this is Hakone which is known for his hot-springs)
Two mandarins ducks Hiroshige
(Two mandarins ducks Hiroshige, 1838, ukiyo-e)


A declining period for ukyo-e, the late 19th century.

Because of the Meiji restoration at the time and the westernization of the Japanese society, ukiyo-e knew a fast decline. This genre was considered moribund.

We can notice tsukioka yoshitoshi (1839-1892) who is known for his work on horror and gore, from monsters to ghosts, etc. One of his famous work is called the One hundred Aspects of the Moon.

Yoshitoshi's Tsuki hyakushi, One hundred aspects of the moon
(From Yoshitoshi’s Tsuki hyakushi, One hundred aspects of the moon, 1891, ukiyo-e)


Ukiyo-e through the 20th century.

The westernization of the Japanese society left this genre in the dark, but there still was some noticeable artist during this period.

We can cite Goyō Hashiguchi for his work on beautiful woman.

Kamisuki, 1920 Goyō
(Kamisuki (Combing the hair), Ukiyo-e, Taishō era, 1920 Goyō)


Next, there is Shinsui Ito (1898-1972) also known for his work on woman images with his modern style.

Before the Mirror by Shinsui Ito
(Before the Mirror by Shinsui Ito, ukiyo-e)


Then, we can cite Hasui Kawase (1883-1957) for his modern landscapes.

Zōjō-ji in Shiba (1925) by Hasui Kawase
(Zōjō-ji in Shiba (1925) by Hasui Kawase, ukiyo-e)


Ukyo-e in the 21th century, an ukiyo-e pop culture.

Since we are only 19 years into the 21th century, I do not have a lot of information about the famous artist of the present ukiyo-e world; therefore, I will present two artist who are trying to spread the ukiyo-e genre through the pop-culture.

First of all, I will present you Ukiyo-e Heroes by Jed Henry and Dave Bull.

More Beast than Man by Jed Henry and Dave Bull
(More Beast than Man, which is a reference to Wolverine by Jed Henry and Dave Bull, ukiyo-e)
Rickshaw Cart by Jed Henry and Dave Bull
(Rickshaw Cart, which is a reference to the Nintendo game Mario cart by Jed Henry and Dave Bull,ukiyo-e)
Divine Judgement by Jed Henry and Dave Bull
(Divine Judgement, which is a reference to the manga Death note by Jed Henry and Dave Bull,ukiyo-e)


You can find more of their design on their website (https://ukiyoeheroes.com/)

Then, I will talk about a young Japanese artist Kenji Iwasaki.

Venom by Kenji Iwasaki
(Venom by Kenji Iwasaki which is a reference to the film venom, ukiyo-e)
12 zodiac animals by kenji iwasaki
(12 zodiac animals by kenji iwasaki, ukiyo-e)
Lion by Kenji iwasaki
(Lion by Kenji iwasaki, ukiyo-e)


You can find more of his design on his website (https://iwasaki-art.com/)

5. Conclusion

To conclude, here you have it, a short history of ukiyo-e through their artist during the different period. We can see that this art genre in term of popularity is like a wave. It was almost non-existent before the 18th century, then became really popular during the 19th century to finally decline and almost disappear during the 20th century. Nowadays, there are only a few artist remaining in this genre, yet I hope and I will support a rebond for Ukiyo-e in the years to come.

Let’s enjoy this beautiful art !

Thank you for reading.

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Deligne Mathieu - RedSparkleArt- Author-Painter-ukiyo-e artist- kachoga artist

Deligne Mathieu

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