Ukiyo-e (image of the floating world) is a Japanese artistic concept that emerged during the Edo period. It is a print made with xylography and whose themes represent the Japanese urban lifestyle.

Ukiyo-e is also used to decorate Noren (Japanese curtains)...The main precursors of this art are Hokusai, Utamaro, Hiroshige, Watanabe, and many others.

Ukiyo-e's Japanese prints have experienced several generations of artists, which testifies to its timelessness. As a fan of Japanese art, we would be delighted to help you get to know this artistic process better.

Here is some important information to know about the origin of Japanese printmaking and the Ukiyo-e artistic movement:

  • The origin of the Japanese print Ukiyo-e
  • The steps involved in the production of Japanese prints
  • How to recognize an original print
  • The Different Generations of Ukiyo-e Artists
  • The themes of this Japanese print
  • The main artists of Ukiyo-e
  • The Influence of Ukiyo-e on Western Art
  • The emergence of ukiyo-e in popular culture

If you are ready to discover this Japanese art, then we can go. But first, here is a short history course on its origin.

Origin of the Japanese print Ukiyo-e

From a Buddhist point of view, the ukiyo (floating world) refers to an imaginary universe where you feel sorrow and bitterness. It was towards the end of the 17th century that it appeared under the script Ukiyo-e (image of the floating world). Although it takes up Buddhist thinking, it turns away from a theme of sadness, in favor of pleasure.

Indeed, ukiyo-e highlights the Japanese way of life during the Edo period. Ukiyo-e art is gaining momentum in Yoshiwara, a reserved area created during the Tokugawa Shogunate. This place, made up of brothels or kabuki theaters, became an entertainment center for the middle class.

This Japanese print also appears in Osaka or even in Kyoto. The main themes of this art are geishas, samurai, rikishis (sumo wrestlers) and sometimes landscapes. In her novel Ukiyo Monogarari, Asai Ryoi gives a personal definition of this Japanese art.

The steps involved in the production of Japanese prints

Xylography is an engraving technique that originated in China and is becoming very popular in the East. It is a woodcut used to introduce Buddhism to the Japanese archipelago. Indeed, the prints made refer to sutras (Buddhist principle).

Subsequently, this graphic art became popular and reached its golden age during the Edo period, thanks to polychromy. However, this boom came about thanks to the emergence of social classes (merchants and artisans) established by the shogun Tokugawa. From then on, numerous illustrations were created, such as that of courtesans or even landscapes.

The production of a print requires several technical skills. We can mention:

  • The draughtsman: he is the one who designs the artistic masterpiece. He makes a shita-e (ink drawing) and once finished, he sends it to the engraver. For example, we can cite Hokusai, an iconic designer
  • The engraver: his mission is to transpose the drawing onto the wooden boards. In this way, he creates the shapes that allow the reproduction of the image. To make it simple, he places the ink drawing on the wooden board, and engrave it all using his tools. During this step, the original paper made by the designer is destroyed.
  • The printer: this is the final stage of production. The role of the latter is to ink the lines and colors on the plate and then to make the printing on the paper in order to obtain the image. It starts with the black lines, then on the colors ranging from the lightest to the darkest. The paper that is moistened is deposited on the shapes, then pressed onto them using a traditional pad (baren). In order to adjust the colors for each proof, the printer makes use of the setting marks
  • The publisher : now that the print is finished, it's time to sell. The publisher is the one who brings together the draughtsman, the printer and the engraver, but it is also he who places the print on the market. As a famous publisher, we can mention Tsutaya

The Different Generations of Ukiyo-e Artists

Over the years, the ukiyo-e evolved from a simple artistic concept to a real work of art, and over time, several generations of Japanese printmakers were discovered.

The First Generation: The Ukiyo-e during the Edo Period (1600 — 1869)

At the time of the Tokugawa shogunate, the capital of Japan was called Edo (present-day Tokyo ). In 1640, he introduced a policy of autarky and promulgated a law that prohibited the Japanese from leaving the territory. Conversely, this law prohibited the entry of Westerners into Japanese territory, the penalty could be a death sentence.

During this era, there were two types of graphic representation, namely traditional painting and printmaking. The first graphic work is appreciated by the aristocrats while the second, is loved by the merchant class. The print depicts the urban lifestyle of the chonins in the Edo Pleasure District.

From then on, the ukiyo-e illustrates geishas, courtesans, kabuki actors and even landscapes. Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige are considered iconic figures in the Ukiyo-e print. It was during this period that the Japanese print took the name Ukiyo-e, meaning “ image of the floating world .\"

The Second Generation: The Ukiyo-e During the Meiji Era (1869—1912)

Under pressure from American forces in 1853 and 1854, the shogun decided to abandon his policy and open the borders. Japan opened up to the world of the West and quickly, the Meiji Revolution appeared. Anxious to be dominated by Western power, Japan became westernized and gave a new image of prints.

One of the best represented artists of this era is Kiyochika Kobayashi, a Japanese photographer and painter . He uses Western illustration techniques with that of ukiyo-e to form what is called the Meiji print. From 1870 onwards, the ukiyo-e deteriorated and became vulgar, giving way to photography.

The Third Generation: The Shin Hanga Style (new engraving from 1910-1960)

It is about the renewed art of the 20th century due to the influence of the West on Japanese manners. Traditional prints are abandoned in favor of photography, which is in full growth. In 1905, Shozaburo Watanabe, a young Japanese publisher, came up with the idea of creating a new style of Japanese printmaking.

He will therefore bring together the traditional staff (draftsman, printer and engraver), and use his own artistic logic. The chosen themes remain those of Ukiyo-e with the difference that they are made with a Western touch. In 1921, he used the term “Shin Hanga" to highlight the renewal of the style.

The main themes of Japanese prints

There are several themes represented in the art of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints . So we are going to show you each of them in this part.

Paintings of pretty women

Still called “bijin-ga”, this is the theme that has been most illustrated by Ukiyo-e artists. It is an exclusive representation of courtesans, one of the important social figures of feudal Japan. Courtesans in the feudal era were women famous for their beauty.

Courtesans had a strong influence on Japanese prints, from the 17th century to the 20th century. Utamaro is one of the artists who represented courtesans the most.


Shunga (images of spring) are Japanese prints dealing with eroticism. They also appeared during the Edo period and were subject to censorship by law. Most of the works addressing this theme refer to Yoshiwara, the entertainment district of Edo.

Some of the greatest Ukiyo-e artists who have dealt with this theme include Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige. In 1804, Utamaro published a guide to the customs of brothels, which greatly contributed to his notoriety. He became well known in France where in 1891 he was nicknamed the painter of brothels by Edmond de Goncourt.

Calendar images

Still called e-goyomi, these prints made are actually Japanese calendars. The precise idea of their design comes because of the difficulty in understanding the Japanese lunar calendar. Finally, e-goyomi will circumvent this complexity by unveiling the next long months through luxurious prints.

Aside from its utilitarian role, e-goyomi was a kind of mind game for literary followers. In fact, during the making of the print, the artist cleverly conceals the numbers that indicate the long months. These figures were hidden most of the time, in the geometric designs of a kimono belt.

Still in the design, the artist adds references to Japanese culture or legends from the Far East. They were hidden in parodies (mitate) which represents the original legend. We can cite the parody of the broken wagon of Utamaro or a parody of the three wise men (Confucius, Buddha, Lao-tzu).

Kabuki Theater and Sumo Wrestlers

Apart from courtesans in the Pleasure District (Yoshiwara), kabuki is a major theme for ukiyo-e artists. Japanese prints advertise theaters and increase the notoriety of its actors. These images could be perceived as theater programs or then, a representation of the play in which the actor plays.

The ukiyo-e also represented sumo wrestlers as seen with Buncho and Koryusai making the first portraits. Shunsho and Shun'ei followed, using their experience in designing actor portraits to make sumotoris. Subsequently, it was the turn of Hokusai and Utamaro, to take an interest in the portraits of these wrestlers.

The fantastic

This theme appears in Hokusai's sketchbooks , as well as at Utamaro. He is also present at Hiroshige's house through his print The Hundred Views of Edo. It shows a yokai meeting in the middle of the night, under a tree in Ōji and accompanied by wisps.

Ukiyo-zōshi and Ugetsu monogatari are fantastic literary tales written by Ueda Akinari. They are represented in a movie in 1953 by Kenji Mizoguchi.

Japanese landscapes Ukiyo-e

The arrival of Western painting techniques influenced other Japanese ukiyo-e artists. They assimilated them and, around the 19th century, began to represent the landscapes of the Japanese archipelago. Using the famous lives, Hokusai and Hiroshige start prints of the most beautiful sites in Japan.

Among the works of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the most famous representations of landscapes are:

  • Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai and later by Hiroshige
  • Famous Views of the Eastern Capital by Hokusai
  • Eight views of Edo, directed by Hokusai
  • One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai
  • One Hundred Views of Edo, directed by Hiroshige
  • Views of Famous Sites in Japan's Sixty-Some Provinces, from Hiroshige
  • The Fifty-Three Stations of Tōkaidō, directed by Hiroshige
  • The Sixty-Nine Stations of Kiso Kaidō, Directed by Hiroshige

The main artists of Ukiyo-e

The Japanese print that is the ukiyo-e has known a series of talented craftsmen. Among these, some stand out thanks to their timeless works. We can mention:

  • Hishikawa Monorobu (1618-1694): he was the first and greatest artist of primitive printmaking. He was a draughtsman, a painter or an illustrator developing woodblock prints, whose prints are in black ink (Sumizuri-e). He is the first to sign his works, in order to assert their authenticity.
  • Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806): he is a student of Toriyama Sekiyen and the best-known artist of Japanese printmaking, after Hokusai. He makes illustrations for books, including The Book of Insects. But he is much better known for making magnificent portraits of female beauties, especially courtesans. Indeed, the majority of his works are devoted to the animation of Yoshiwara, the pleasure district of the city of Edo
  • Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849): of all the Japanese cartoonists, he is the most famous in France. He is nicknamed the Crazy Old Man of Drawing because even at an advanced age, he did not stop working and improving himself. He draws inspiration from the elders of Japanese printmaking and Western masters, then cultivates many genres including portraits, landscapes, etc. The Great Wave of Kanagawa is his masterpiece and the most famous print in the world
  • Motonaga Hiroshige (1797-1858): it is with this very famous name that the page in the history of Japanese prints closes. He developed a poetic style inspired by the works of Hokusai and the shots of Mount Fuji. His greatest work, famous and timeless, is the opus Fifty-Three Stations of Tōkaidō

The Influence of Ukiyo-e on Western Art

The West discovered only ukiyo-e art and Japanese art only very late, during the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867. It is therefore in France that this influence will be the most striking and that way, enthusiasts made beautiful collections. For Westerners, the light realism and vigor of Hokusai is the most accomplished artistic expression of Japanese art.

However, studies conducted on the pioneers of Japanese pictorial art characterize the Japanese aesthetic as noble and elegant. Ernest Fenollosa was the first to give comprehensive reviews of Ukiyo-e. If photography supplanted the ukiyo-e in Japan, thus making it become a fashion, it was the opposite in the West that suffered, Japanism.

Thus, the image of the ukiyo-e became a source of inspiration for the West and many painters adopted it, including Monet, Van Gogh, and Klimt. Hayashi was one of the main ambassadors of Ukiyo-e in France, supplying Japanese art collectors. Indeed, French artists have appreciated Japanese art, including Claude Monet who has a large collection of Japanese prints.

The emergence of ukiyo-e in popular culture

It is rare to see these works that remind us of the fine days of the Ukiyo-e and its iconic artists. However, we can give you a few sources included in Japanese popular culture :

  • Five Women Around Utamaro is a film released in 1946 by Kenji Mizoguchi and whose theme is about the courtesans of the Ukiyo-e, of which Utamaro was the main artist
  • Seinen Kyōjin Kankei (Crazy Passions), is a manga released between 1973 and 1974 by Kazuo Kamimura, it is a manga that reminds us of the Edo period as well as the art of Hokusai
  • The movie Harakiri, released in 1962 by Masaki Kobayashi, it highlights the struggle of the samurai in an era that no longer needs them, that of Edo. As a reminder, Harakiri is a form of samurai self-suicide
  • Kwaidan is another movie released in 1964 by Kobayashi. This one talks about Japanese fantasy, one of the themes of Ukiyo-e, based on the tales of Hearn Lafcadio
  • Tales of the Moon Wave After the Rain is a 1953 film released by Kenji Mizoguchi that tells us about the fantastic Japanese, in a poetic way
  • The memory of a Geisha is a 2005 film by Rob Marshall that reminds us of the antics of a geisha in the Edo era

Manga and anime are considered descendants of ukiyo-e, as the origin of Japan's pictorial stories can be traced back to the Emaki. These are scrolls that have been illustrated since the 12th century and have even been used by Moronobu, a great master of the ukiyo-e. It was much later, in the golden age of ukiyo-e, that we would know these visual codes seen in manga, like erotic art.

Ukiyo-e, the most emblematic art in Japanese culture

As a reminder, we saw that ukiyo-e is a Japanese artistic concept that appeared during the Edimgo era. Called “ images of the floating world ”, it highlighted the urban lifestyle of civilians under the Tokugawa shogunate. However, the first achievements of print come from Chinese masters who wanted to establish Buddhism.

The ukiyo-e is a woodblock print that is printed in black ink at the very beginning, by Monorobu. It was much later, under the influence of Western painting, that the colors of Japanese prints were diversified. There are several themes in Japanese prints, the best known of which are courtesans or landscapes.

Utamaro, Hiroshige or Hokusai, are considered the great masters of ukiyo-e and their works remain timeless. The production of a print requires a few craftsmen including the draughtsman, the printer, the engraver and the publisher. Influenced by Western art and photography, the ukiyo-e is gradually disappearing in Japan.

However, Japanese prints have greatly influenced Western culture, such as Van Gogh who reproduces a work by Hiroshige. Just like Claude Monet who is inspired by a work by Hokusai. Popular culture, like the world of cinema or manga, keeps some memories of this Japanese art.

Did you know that the Great Wave of Kanagawa is a Japanese artistic masterpiece that remains timeless? Thank you for following us and see you soon!

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