What is Ukiyo-e?

Ukiyo-e was a very popular art form in Japan during the Edo Period that became an indelible part of Japanese arts and culture

Ukiyo-e, or ukiyo-ye (浮世絵, "pictures of the floating world"), which still exist in modern forms today, flourished in Japan from the 17th to 19th centuries. These woodblock prints and paintings depicted a wide range of subjects including natural landscapes, scenes from historical events and folk tales, demons, female beauties, celebrities of the day such as kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers, and more. There are some truly strange artworks based on legends and folktales as well as beautiful and idyllic landscapes. Very many of the artworks have extensive stories and backgrounds that reveal more as the context is understood.

The art movement came as a reflection of the growing economic power of the merchant class, who benefitted from the relocation of the seat of government to Edo (modern Tokyo) and its subsequent rapid growth. In fact, the term ukiyo (floating world) came to describe the indulgent lifestyle of the time that came with this newfound wealth and urbanization.

By the late 17th century, prints and paintings reflecting this ukiyo, "floating world" environment, emerged and became popular with the merchant class, who were by then able to afford to decorate their homes with such works. The rapid modernization of Japan during the Meiji Restoration brought ukiyo-e into a steep decline, but not before some of the most enduring works of Japanese art were created. Prints like the Great Wave off Kanagawa by the master artist Katsushika Hokusai and scenes from the series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido by Utagawa Hiroshige helped shaped the West's perception of Japanese art in the late 19th century and still remains some of the most recognizable Japanese art today.

Interestingly, the final woodblock print was rarely the work of one artist. Rather, the artist would design the print, a carver would create the woodblocks for printing, and finally, a printer would ink the woodblocks and press them onto paper, creating the final product. Being specialized and handmade, ukiyo-e prints were able to achieve effects such as color gradation or blending that were impractical to create with machines at the time.

Printmaking saw a revival in the early 20th century, fueled by a growing Western interest, and moved from a collaborative process to being designed, carved and printed by one person. This relationship with the West also saw an introduction of imported techniques, which are incorporated and used in modern Japanese prints.

Large Tree Hiroshige UkiyoeGoldfish Heaven UkiyoeKaidomaru Ukiyoe