In accordance with the spirit of the bushi, or warriors, who had gained one
victory after another over the rival local lords, the art of this period was
shaped by the notion of a robust warrior culture with its overtones of
masculinity. The castles they erected and the paintings with which they
decorated them bear witness to this warrior culture. In the 16th century, simple
hilltop castles were superseded by castles on the plains designed to manifest
the power of their masters. Turreted castles of many storeys were put up, from
which the jokamachi ("town under the castle") could be kept under surveillance.
Their interiors were decorated with sumptuous paintings of flowers and birds
with magnificent golden colours, reflecting the authority of the lord.
Azuchi Castle is reputed to have been the most splendid of all. It
was burnt down in the year Tensho (1582) during the rebellion
led by General Akechi Mitsuhide. This castle was home to the lavish
gold paintings by Kan5 Eitoku (1543- 1590) and his pupils. Few of
the works of this most prestigious master of the Momoyama period,
who served both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, are still extant. One of his
masterpieces, a screen with large lions, is today in the Imperial
Palace collection. It is two metres tall by four broad, and depicts
two gigantic lions strolling majestically around. It was with such
imposing pictures that the rulers of the time wished to demonstrate
their power over their subjects.
For the rest, the magnificence of the Momoyama style comes across in
the florescence of its landscape paintings, which make up their own
category within the genre of yamato-e. They depict pleasure
trips to the immediate surroundings and show predominantly scenes
from the lives of ordinary people, documenting their changing lives
and lifestyles over the years.
This period, during which the lords were busy proclaiming their own
de facto power in this peaceably pompous manner, also allowed
the middle classes certain freedoms, within the framework of which
they were able to develop fashions and pleasures of their own.
Kyoto, the capital, which had been rebuilt by the citizens after the
turmoil of the wars, raised its Gion quarter once more to a centre
of bustling life, illustrated in Kano Eitoku's "Views of Kyoto and
its Surroundings". These pictures portray vividly and in some detail
the everyday lives of the people and give us an overview of the life
of the city and of the famous places in the vicinity, including the
seasonal festivals, the pleasures and the everyday doings of the
inhabitants. These are all motifs which were later to reappear in
the ukiyo-e. However, these pictures were still being
commissioned by the powerful, who were enabled as a result to inform
themselves about the lives of the town-dwellers. Indeed, that was
their purpose: the pictures were instruments of surveillance.
Eitoku's "Views of Kyoto and its Surroundings" stimulated new
developments in landscape painting. Attention now focussed upon
individual aspects of everyday city life: pictures of
entertainments, of festivals, of kabuki performances, of
brothels etc. Painters taking their commissions from the ruling
class followed the style of the Kano school, depicting their motifs
from above, in a bird's eye perspective. However, there were other
painters from an urban background who compromised with other styles
of painting, producing numerous works depicting urban scenes and
views. The Kano school had interested itself primarily in landscape
painting, but its expressivity was limited to the extent that these
painters took their commissions - and hence their prescribed motifs
- from the ruling class, and thus did not portray things from the
point of view of the bourgeoisie. As a result, the urban painters
increasingly turned their attention to the life of the streets and
the inhabitants of the towns and cities. Although the age was
glorified as one in which a new social order had been inaugurated,
in the patriarchal hierarchy which characterized the next two
centuries a firm distinction continued to be made between rulers and
ruled. Since the middle classes wanted to liberate themselves from
this system, they demanded a place where they could be themselves,
away from the everyday pressures of feudal life, where rulers and
ruled were kept strictly apart. These places may have been little
short of dens, but they reflected the innermost desires of the urban
population. Later they were to crystallize as the most important
motifs of ukiyo-e. The Shijogawara and Rokujomisujimachi
districts of Kyoto developed during this period into centres of
kabuki and prostitution.
It was the year Keicho (1603) which saw the rise to fashion of
kabuki, the "song-dance-art" founded by Izumo no Okuni. It
arose from a desire to entertain the souls of those who had been
killed during the late wars with dances in which all could take
part. Gradually, however, it developed into an art form, in which
performers were separate from spectators.
Illustr. below depicts "Okuni kabukizu byobu", in which Okuni,
dressed in male attire, appears as a dancer in the centre of the
stage, a sword over her shoulder, playing the role of the "kabuuki-mono".
She thus caricatures the men who could be seen going along the
streets of the city in this comical manner. It was the fashion at
the time to go from tea-house to tea-house with street-musicians and
actors and act out this scene of the "kabuki-mono". In this way the
dances came to enjoy such great popularity' that prostitutes also
started setting up stages in their brothels, where they performed
the "kabuki-mono" to the musical accompaniment of a
shamisen. In the course of time, the dances became increasingly
lively. From them there emerged a particular courtesan's dance whose
express purpose was to attract clients; this, however, was regarded
as a violation of the principles of good conduct, and led to a ban
on the performance of kabuki dance by prostitutes. At the same time,
teenage actors were also forbidden to perform kabuki drama.
Performances were restricted to men whose shaven foreheads were the
sign that they had reached manhood.
Screen depicting Okuni Kabuki
Once the liberal theatre, with its dances, songs and musical
performances by prostitutes and male geishas, had been put
under strict control, kabuki changed to become a portrayal of
actual situations. Looking at pictures of kabuki scenes in
the following years, there is a clear trend away from depictions of
lively Shijogawara street scenes. Instead, artists increasingly
focus their interest on the people inside and outside the theatres,
and on the stage on which the drama is unfolding in all its
The pleasure quarter, where the kabuki underwent its development at
the hands of the prostitutes, was transferred from Nijoyanagimachi
to Rokujomisu-jimachi, where it continued with undiminished vigour.
Whereas Eitoku's "Views of Kyoto and its Surroundings" depicted
relationships between prostitutes and clients, interest gradually
shifted to scenes within the pleasure quarter. More and more
pictures were painted of the entertainments offered in the rooms of
the brothels, depicting maiko against a simple golden
background, attending to the entertainment of the guests (see
below). Finally, individual portrayals of standing prostitutes
also appeared. In general, portrayals of the beauties of the Kanbun
era (1661—1673) are referred to as "Kanbun bijin zu". These include,
however, not only representations of courtesans in portrait format,
but also pictures of actors. In the succeeding period, these gave
rise to the independent genres known as bijin-ga and
Screen depicting fan dance
Depictions of general street scenes thus developed into interior
views of theatres and brothels, until these eventually came to be
restricted to portraits of individuals. It was no longer very far to
the motifs of the ukiyo-e. The works produced in Kyoto and
Osaka, however, were still reserved for the eyes of the well-to-do.
This was slowly to change with the advent of the Tokugawa period.
Hideyoshi was succeeded as ruler by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542—1616). The
year Keicho (1603) saw the establishment of the shogunate in
Edo, and with it the transfer of the country's policital centre from
the Kyoto/Osaka region to the east coast. Measures to build up the
city quickly followed: in the centre, Edo Castle was erected, while
land was reclaimed in the Tsukiji area, which saw the establishment
of residences for daimyo and bushi, as well as temples
and housing developments. This construction boom attracted numerous
craftsmen to Edo both from the immediate surroundings and indeed
from the whole country. They in turn were followed by an influx of
merchants to supply their needs. There was a rapid increase in
population, but it was a purely male society. The residential
districts were occupied first of all by the craftsmen and artisans.
Here there grew up - in contrast to those districts where the
daimyo lived - a non-aristocratic society. The atmosphere in
these new residential districts was perhaps somewhat coarse, but it
was informal, cheerful and full of life. It is an atmosphere clearly
reflected in the ukiyo-e, to which we are about to turn.
A screen entitled "Views of Famous Places in Edo" depicts the life
of that city in the first half of the Kan'ei period (1624-1644). The
right-hand side of this eight-section screen consists of views of
various well-known sights: Sensdji and Kaneiji temples, Kandamyojin
and Motoyoshiwara shrines (see below) and Nihonbashi (see
below). To the left can be seen Edo Castle, Kyobashi, Shinbashi,
Atagoyama, Shibazojqji temple and Shibaura. This picture does not
take the bird's eye view of "Views of Kyoto and its Surroundings",
however, but is painted from a lower standpoint, thus giving the
beholder a feeling of nearness to the people of Edo.
Screen of "Views of Famous in Edo"
Screen of "Views of Famous in Edo"
As the city of Edo had been newly built, it had no culture of its
own; for its cultural life it was indebted to the region around
Kyoto and Osaka. In the year Meireki (1657), Edo Castle was
razed to the ground in a fire which also consumed the residences of
the daimyo and the bushi and the houses of the local
population. The virtually new city was almost entirely destroyed,
along with much of the cultural heritage from the Kyoto/Osaka
region. As a result, bourgeois culture had a unique chance to
The ground was thus prepared for the birth of ukiyo-e. The
woodblock print arose as the new form of expression of bourgeois
art, whose technique made it possible to produce large editions at
an affordable price.
The technique of woodblock printing had already been in use in Japan
before the Edo period. It initially served chiefly religions (Bhuddist)
ends; in the Kyoto/Osaka region, for example, Buddhist sutras and
representations of Buddhist deities were reproduced on paper in this
way. In the 16th century, the technique was further developed with
the publication of Chinese texts and books. The greatest advantage
of woodblock printing was that it enabled pictures to be reproduced
in large numbers.
The most important work of this kind was "Ise monogatari", a book in
which the luxurious amusements of the aristocracy were depicted in
gratifying detail (see below). This is the best-preserved
work of the period, dating from the year Keicho (1608), and
represents a valuable piece of evidence on the origin of the
woodblock printing technique.
The technique of book-printing was also brought to Edo from its
original home in Kyoto and Osaka. The new capital saw a gradually
increasing demand for books, which were not however delivered to Edo
as finished products, but rather printed there from plates produced
in Osaka. It was not long before the plates, too, began to be
manufactured in Edo.
It was during this period that Tsuruya, Masuya, Yamagataya and
Urokogataya - book wholesalers from Kyoto and Osaka - set up
branches in Edo's commercial districts of Odenmacho and Aburacho,
where they gave employment to the draughtsmen, woodblock cutters and
printers already settled there. The woodblocks of the period were
being produced by little-known artists, and were used to illustrate
simple books intended for entertainment or as teaching materials. At
first the ink pictures were coloured in yellow, green or vermilion.
Over the course of time, the orginial motifs gradually evolved into
an individual, informal style of painting, which in turn led to the
emergence of a specific artistic style for the illustration of
The increase in the output of illustrated literature was fed by
numbers of books on customs and festivals illustrated by artists of
some renown. There was a particularly heavy demand for pictures of
the red-light district of Yoshiwara and of the world of the theatre.
Urokogataya, the first bookseller to settle in Edo, led the way by
publishing two books, "Yoshiwaramakura" and "Yoshiwarakagami", with
erotic illustrations [Manji (1660)]. Among the books on the
theatre were "Hagmooi", published by Masuya in the year Kanbun
(1662) and "Tsurezuregusa", published by Urokogataya in Kanbun
(1671).Yoshiwaras courtesans and kabuki actors were the
subject of published critiques, while pictures of high-class
prostitutes and their clients appeared in so-called ehon
At first these books were unsigned, but the quality of their
woodblock prints was of a high order. It may therefore be assumed
that the artists involved included Moronobu and Jihei, who went on
to become masters of the art of woodblock illustration. The ehon
found a ready market among the book-buying public of Edo, and they
made a major contribution to the development of realistic portrayals
and techniques in woodblock printing. The genre gave birth in the
Enpo era (1673-1681) to a particular type of individual picture,
from which the ukiyo-e developed.
The Beginnings of Ukiyo-e
Hishikawa Moronobu (1618 or 1625-1694) is regarded as the
inaugurator of ukiyo-e. He came from a family of embroiderers
in Awanokuni Yasudamura (in die present-day prefecture of Chiba),
but moved to Edo, where book-printing was just becoming established.
He learnt painting in the Kano and Tosa schools, but went on to
develop a style of his own. He cut his own woodblocks of scenes from
the pleasure districts and of the courtesans, and gave free rein to
his brush when depicting the everyday life of Edo. Moronobu thereby
established a specifically Edo style of painting, which he called
yamato-ukiyo-e. Moronobu and his pupils Morofusa and Moroshige
were active from the Enpo era (1673-1681) to the Genroku era
(1688-1704). At this time the technique of woodblook printing was
still relatively unsophisticated; the resulting prints, called
sumizuri-e, were monochrome, and had to be coloured in by hand as
required. Despite their simple, unpolished, even coarse impression,
they provide a vivid reflection of the everyday life of the middle
classes in Edo as the city was taking shape.
In the year Genna (1617), the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter was
established in Nihonbashi-Fukiyamachi in the centre of Edo.
Considerations of public morality led, however, to a decree ordering
its transfer to Asakusa in the year Manji 2 (1659). To distinguish
it from the old, the new district in Asakusa was called Shin-Yoshiwara
(New Yoshiwara). Almost all ukiyo-e depict the life of this
new quarter. As a guide to the "red light district" of Yoshiwara,
Moronobu produced the twelve-part series "Yoshiwara no karada".
Shows (see below) one of the scenes; this is a monochrome
sumizuri-e, showing in detail the entertainments available in
the brothels. The series thus offers an important historical insight
into life in Yoshiwara. Furthermore, it includes Moronobu's best
works. As he was working on the model of the ehon, most of
his works took the form of twelve-part series. While conceived as a
set, each picture can be viewed in its own right as an individual
work. It was only in later years that individual prints became more
common; Jihei, a contemporary of Moronobu, is generally seen as the
father of the single print.
People from Yoshiwara. Young Pair of Lovers
The Kaigetsudo school also chose the life of the courtesans and
their sumptuous costumes in the officially approved pleasure quarter
of Yoshiwara as the themes of their work. The school was founded by
Kaigetsudo Yasunori (dates unknown); its painters did not at first
produce pictures for reproduction, but they did paint numerous
pictures with the same motifs, in order to be able to sell them in
large numbers. Kaigetsudo s pupils Yasutomo, Norishige and Noritatsu
produced pictures of attractive courtesans in almost identical
standing poses. At first these were almost exclusively brush-and-ink
drawings; towards the end of the Genroku era, however, in order to
liven up the monochrome monotony of the final print, they began to
colour them in with green, yellow and vermilion. The invention of
these tan-e represented a further step forward in the gradual
advance of colour.
Against the background of life in the expanding city of Edo, the
kabuki of the Genroku era saw the appearance of the specific
role of the aragoto as the antithesis of the elegant courtly
culture of Kyoto. The aragoto, a lead player bursting with
energy, was in tune with the effervescent spirit of the population
of Edo, and soon came to enjoy great popularity. The "Kabukizu byobu"
(see below) is attributed to Moronobu's studio; on the
curtain are written the words "Nakamura Kanzaburo during a
performance of a kyogen", thus indicating a scene in the
Nakamura theatre. Along with the Ichimura and Morita theatres, the
Nakamura-<d was one of the three officially licensed playhouses in
Edo, and it was also the oldest. A comparison with "Okuni kabukizu
byobu" shows how stage design had developed over the years.
Steen showing kabuki scene
Elegant four-section screen
depicting Ichikawa DanjuroII
The Torii school, centring on Torii Kiyonobu (1664-1729),
formed close links with Edo's kabuki theatres. The
members of the school painted not only posters and
programmes, but also portraits of individual actors on
stage. In the succeeding period, the development of ukiyo-e
ran parallel with that of kabuki. In the case of theatre
posters, in particular, a new style of painting was
developed, emphasizing the role of the aragoto with
his bulging muscles. The screen reproduced in (see
illustr.) depicts Ichikawa Danjuro, the creator of the
aragoto role. The atmosphere of the Edo kabuki at
this period comes across very clearly. In accordance with
the tastes and inclinations of the citizens, a contemporary
of Danjuro's by the name of Torii Kiyomasu (dates unknown)
developed a style of his own under the label of "yakusha-e
no Torii" ("Torii of the actor-portraits" - see below)
and introduced it as an independent genre.
Shibaraku ("halt!") pose, adopted by Ichikawa Danjuro I
As though to break the monopoly of yakusha portraiture, Okumura
Masanobu (1686-1764), who had had the advantage of training in the
Hishikawa and Torii schools, introduced a new stylistic trend. In
addition, he managed a bookshop named "Akabyotan". On the basis of
his experience of both sides of the business, he made a valuable
contribution to both the qualitative and quantitative development of
ukiyo-e. It was he who was responsible for the extension of
the particular character of the yakusha-e to the bijin-ga,
or pictures of beautiful women. As models he used not just
courtesans, but bourgeois women too. The more elegant the ladies
became, the more he adapted his technique. Instead of vermilion, he
made increasing use of crimson (beni), in some cases mixed
with indigo and yellow. Thus arose the beni-e. Masanobu was
also the originator of the urushi-e, or lacquer picture, in
which the ink was mixed with bone-glue, which produced a shimmering
effect in the costumes of the actors thus depicted. If copper-dust
was sprinkled on it, then the picture took on a golden sheen.
Masanobu also experimented with very hard paper, in order to be able
to hang individual figures as "post pictures" (hashira-e),
and in addition he introduced a further innovation by arranging
three pictures in the hosoban format. His new-ideas very soon
made him popular. One of his pupils, Toshinobu, was active during
his master's urushi-e period, and went on to surpass him in
elegance and colourful expressivity.
Masanobu's uki-e of the interiors of theatres and other rooms
are mostly symmetrical in their construction, which also creates a
sense of spatial depth. He thus made an early, if imperfect, attempt
to absorb Western art, and thereby prepared the ground for the
adoption of linear perspective by the landscape painters of a later
period. Alongside Masanobu's output, works by Nishimura Shigenaga
and Torii Kiyotada (see below) have also been preserved.
Uki-e, theatre scene
Register marks (Kento)
Under the influence of polychromatic printing from China,
a new technique developed in the Enkyo era (1744-1748).
After being printed in black-and-white, the sheet was
printed once more in a second colour, usually red or green.
As crimson was most commonly employed, this technique came
to be known as benizuri-e. In order to ensure precise
alignment of the two printings, it was necessary to
introduce kento or register marks; these marks were
made in the corners of the plate and indicated the angle at
which the paper was to be laid against it. Mostly these
register marks left an impression on the paper, visible at
the edge of the print (see illustr.). The benizuri-e
technique made it possible to produce prints in splendid
colour, a major advance in the development of ukiyo-e.
Simple as it was, it endured through the Horeki era
(1751-1764) to the start of the Meiwa era (1764-1772).
The bijin-ga produced using the
benizuri-e technique by Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711-1785)
were in a style of his own. His female figures have supple
faces and bodies (see below); it was with him that
bijin-ga achieved the status of an independent genre,
exercising an enormous influence on subsequent artists.
Coloration came to be increasingly differentiated. "Since I
have not spent my whole life hanging around the pleasure
districts, I was able to depict conditions there very well,"
we are told in the book "Ukiyo-e ruiko".Torii Kiyomitsu
(1735—1785) was one of the third generation of the Torii
school. He and Toyonobu mark the end of the initial period
of ukiyo-e. Kiyomitsu left numerous masterpieces in
the benizuri style, but he liberated himself from the robust
images of the Torn school, introducing a much more delicate
and refined technique. His pupils Kiyoshige, Kiyotsune and
Kiyohiro also painted predominantly yakusha-e.
Beauty beneath Flowers
The Development of Nishiki-e
The beginnings of the monochrome ink picture (sumi-e) now lay about
100 years in the past. The intervening period had witnessed the
development of polychrome woodblock prints. The year Meiwa t (1764)
saw the adoption by the affluent bushi and burghers of Edo of
a fashion by which a new calendar picture was displayed each month.
These pictures were exchanged one for another, thus broadening the
market for extravagant woodblock prints considerably. The initiators
of the fashion were a bushi, Okubo Jishiro Tadanobu, who had
adopted the literary pseudonym of Kyogawa, and Abe Hachinojo
Masahiro, whose pseudonym was Sakei. Not only were they connoisseurs
of woodblock prints, they also encouraged co-operation between
famous painters and woodblock cutters and printers, in order to
ensure a source of the finest possible prints for their collections.
One result of this patronage of art and craft was the appearance of
the nishiki-e, in which a number of colours were freely
Among those who produced and exchanged these calendar pictures was
Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), who thereby made a major contribution
to the development of nishiki-e (see illustr.). He is
said to have been a pupil of Nishimura Shigenaga, but he was also
heavily influenced by Nishikawa Sukenobu - who came from the
Osaka/Kyoto region - as well as by the Chinese painter Kyuei. With
great imaginative flair, he transposed classical novels into a
modern setting, illustrating them with colourful pictures of elegant
beauties. These novels enjoyed a very broad readership. Harunobu is
also well-known through his portrayal of bourgeois beauties in the
nishiki-e style. Typical are his Osen of the Teashop in front
of the Kasamon Inari Shrine, and his Ofuji of the Haberdashery in
front of the Temple of Asakusa Kannon (see below). In view of
his high reputation, his style was widely imitated. The works of
Suzuki Harushige (1747—1818), in particular, are virtually only
distinguishable from those of Harunobu by their signatures.
Harushige later assumed the name of Shiba Kokan, and adapted
European painting for the Japanese market.
Isoda Koryusai (fl. c. 1765-1788), a contemporary of
Harunobu's,adhered at the start of his career, under the name of
Haruhiro, closely to the style of Harunobu. However, from the
beginning of the An'ei era (1772-1781), he developed his own form of
expression, based on sensuous and realistic pictures of beautiful
women. His most important works include the series "Hinagata wakana
no hatsumoyo", pictures of courtesans dressed in the latest fashion.
The series has gone down in the history of woodblock printing as the
first from which more than too prints were made from each block. In
addition, by incorporating not just one figure but several, cleverly
arranged in a confined space, Koryusai continued and developed the
hashira-e style initiated by Masanobu (see illustr.).
A further development of nishiki-e made it possible to use
several blocks and to apply different colours, thus enabling artists
to achieve ever more realistic images. Yakusha-e grew more and more
popular, as many of the actors' followers showed ever-increasing
interest in acquiring portraits of their idols. Especially popular
were the works of Ippitsusai Buncho (ft. c. 1764—1790) and Katsukawa
Shunsho (1726-1792). The masterpieces of both in the actor-portrait
genre appeared in book form under the title "Ehon butai ogi" [Meiwa
(1770)]. Buncho was another of those influenced by Harunobu, and
many of his works testify to his acuity of observation and delicacy
of touch. Shunsho did not hold with the stereotype yakusha-e
of the Toni school, and for his part portrayed the actors as they
appeared during stage performances, thus capturing their
characteristic poses. This style of representation appealed very
much to the public, so that from now on, actors were only depicted
in portrait form. Shunsho's pupils Shunko (1743-1812), Shun'ei
(1762-1819), Shuncho (fl. c. 1780-1795) and Shunro (1760—1849, later
to achieve fame under the name of Hokusai) were the leading
representatives of the Katsukawa school.
The nishiki-e technique enormously extended the scope of
carving and printing, resulting in the development of a very much
finer and more detailed manner of composition.
The Golden Age of Ukiyo-e
It was during the Genroku era (1688-1704) that Edo's home-grown
culture enjoyed its first flowering, and in the Tenmei era
(1781-T789) that it experienced its second. It was during this time
that an independent bourgeois culture took shape, in which both the
theatre and the pleasure-houses flourished. The people of Edo led a
free and easy life. Great value was attached to entertainments of
all kinds, for example excursions to the surrounding countryside as
appropriate to the season. The middle classes came to enjoy a
moderate affluence, and for the ukiyo-e, too, it was the dawn
of a golden age.
There were by now an increasing number of print artists. The first
of this new era was Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820), who had
concentrated in particular upon book illustrations since the An'ei
era, but had also painted bijin-ga. His preference, however,
was not for the delicate ladies of Harunobu or Buncho, but for
rather more stately figures (see below). His pupils were
highly talented: Masanobu (1761-1816), for example, later wrote
books under the name of Santo Kyoden. Masayoshi (1764-1824) also
changed his name, and as the court painter Sukigata Keisai
bequeathed many works from this period.
The Evening of the Star Festival
A list of masters of the Tenmei era would not be complete without
Torii Kiyonaga (1752—1815), one of the fourth generation of the
Torii school of yakuslm-e, though he was in fact better known
for his bijin-ga. His delicate brush-strokes and clear
coloration when depicting his well-proportioned, healthy-looking
women earned him the highest praise. One of his masterpieces is
entitled "Okawabata Yusuzumi" (see illustr.): it is a perfect
example of the precision which he had acquired during his
apprenticeship as an illustrator. Against the background of the
Sumidagawa river, three women are depicted, one wearing the broad
apron of a tea-shop waitress. The finely-patterned kimonos suit them
well; the garments are Kiyonaga's way of underlining the beauty of
the women themselves. In order to achieve a maximum of naturalness,
Kiyonaga would extend his compositions to two or three sheets. In
this picture, all three figures are looking in the same direction;
to the right, therefore, another picture was intended. The views of
Edo which form the background to his bijin-ga are typical of
his landscape style. He can be considered in this regard as the
precursor of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Shuncho and Toshimitsu
(1757—1820) imitated the style of Kiyonaga, and themselves left a
number of bijin-ga masterpieces.
Keizetsuro Hinazuru in the Corridor
The Kansei era (1789-1801), which followed the Tenmei, is
regarded as the period when the art of woodblock printing
reached its zenith. It witnessed the creation by Kitagawa
Utamaro (1753-1806) of his masterpieces, mostly seated
female figures. During the Tenmei era, Utamaro had met the
publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo, who had made his own debut with
Toriyama Sekien. In his early days as an illustrator,
Utamaro worked under the name of Kitagawa Toyoaki. Later he
extended his activities to the production of ukiyo-e,
and assumed the name of Utamaro. The way his bijin-ga
were composed brought him rapid popularity: he made the
faces of his models the focal point of his pictures (okubi-e).
No longer were the garments and the externals the most
important feature, but rather the ideal beauty that lay
concealed within his sitters' inner being (see illustr.).
The invention of the mica-dust print (kira-e) also
goes back to Utamaro. At that time, Yoshiwara was the most
popular and the most populous pleasure quarter in Edo, and
not surprisingly, Utamaro used its courtesans as his models.
from unlicensed red light districts, as well as quite
ordinary women, also figure m his woodblock prints. He was
so popular that not only was he feted as the master of
bijin-ga, but the whole concept of ukiyo-e became
synonymous with Ins name. His reputation attracted numerous
artists, who attached themselves to him and became his
pupils. The most important of these was Eishosai Choki (fl.
c. 1780—after 1800). One man to rival Utamaro was Chobunsai
Eishi (1756-1829), who hailed from a samurai family.
As the eldest son of one Tokiyuki, he was destined to assume
responsibility as head of the family, but he preferred to
become an artist, and renounced his birthright in favour of
his next-of-kin. Eishi was influenced by Kiyonaga and
Shuncho, and he drew inspiration from Utamaro too. His works
display a peculiar elegance and nobility. His pupils
Chokosai Eisho, Ichirakutei Eisui and Choensai Eishin -
whose dates are unknown - likewise produced primarily
bijin-ga. The late period of Utamaro and his successors can
justifiably be called the "golden age of bijin-ga".
It was at this time that Japanese artists first encountered
Western painting. Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814) was the founder of
the Utagawa school, whose creativity flowered towards the end of the
Edo period. He is also noteworthy for his development of the uki-e
form initiated by Masanobu and Shigenaga. Toyoharu introduced the
linear perspective of Western painting into his Japanese landscapes,
thus creating a new form of uki-e. In so doing. he gave a new
impetus to ukiyo-e landscapes. At this time, Harushige
changed his name to Shiba Kokan, and together with his friend Hiraga
Gennai developed a new technique: the copperplate engraving, which
was much used for landscapes (see below). The new technique
also influenced the work of Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Ichikawa Yaozo III as
In concentrating upon the bijin-ga masters of the
Kansei era such as Utamaro, we should not overlook another
master, in this case of yakusha-e, Toshusai Sharaku.
His creative period began in the year Kansei (1794)
and lasted only eleven months. In this short time, he
produced the incredible number of 134 actor portraits, and 9
pictures of sumo wrestlers. His yakusha-e mostly took the
form of okubi-e, in other words, portraits of actors
whose characteristic facial and personality features he
gently exaggerated. Their artistic talents also come across
well in these pictures. Sharaku's perspicuity is unmatched
by any other master of ukiyo-e (see illustr.).
Little is known of his life: he appeared from nowhere, and
disappeared again soon after, but his great talent has
assured him of an enduring reputation. Both in Japan and
abroad, Sharaku's life and work became a topic of research
in view of the desire to discover more about his life and
career. The year 1910 saw the publication by the German
scholar Julius Kurth of a book entitled simply "Sharaku"
(see below), which gave an impetus to further studies.
At the same time, Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825), a pupil of
Toyoharu, was also active; indeed, he was so successful that his
impact on ukiyo-e endured until the end of the Edo period.
Actors from Kansei (1794) onwards form the subject of his series "Yakusha
butai no sugatae". His works were extremely popular, and he may be
said to have been the leading exponent of actor-portraiture of his
day. The people of Edo took his elegant lines, flowing style and
clear coloration to their hearts, thereby determining the course to
be taken by yakusha-e until the close of the Edo period.
Toyokum's book "Yakusha mgao hayageiko" (see below), dating
from Bunka (1817), demonstrates the typical features and
modern techniques of the Utagawa school. The people of Edo were
extremely enthusiastic about his works, so it may be assumed that he
captured the artistic taste of the contemporary bourgeoisie.
Toyokuni did not confine himself to yakusha-e, however, but
left many bijin-ga too. Many of his pupils were extremely
talented, and the Utagawa school became the largest ukiyo-e
school of the Bunka and Bunsei eras. Among its most important
members were Kunimasa, Kunisada, Kumyasu, Munimaru and Kunivoshi.
Ukiyo-e towards the End of the Edo Period
The Tenmei and Kansei eras were the heyday of bourgeois culture;
under the influence of the Kansei reforms, however, decay began to
set in. The priority of the shogunate was how to react to the
demands of foreign powers for the country to be opened up; in
consequence, domestic politics were neglected. The arts, too,
received no new impulses. They lost their naturalness. Exaggeration
and caricature were all that people could now expect.
This is the background against which the work of the Utagawa school
must be judged. Utagawa Kumsada (1786-1864), the most talented among
them, produced numerous yaknsha-e, such as the "Oatari kyogen
no uchi", along with scenes of everyday life. Of all ukiyo-e
artists, he has left the largest number of ukiyo-e, depicting
a wide variety of motifs. Under the name of Utagawa Toyokuni III, he
became the leading figure in the Utagawa school, and from the Tenpo
era onwards was the most important exponent of ukiyo-e.
Another tendency within the Utagawa school was initiated by Utagawa
Kuniyoshi (1797—1861) with his warrior pictures (musha-e). At
first he also produced yakusha-e and bijin-ga, but the
major corpus of his oeuvre consists of historical pictures. On
account of his vivid depiction of heroes, he was known as "Musha-e
no Kuniyoshi" (Kumyoshi, the warrior painter). Among his published
work was a series of pictures illustrating the novel "Suikoden" by
Kyokutei Bakin, dating from the year Bunsei (1825) (see below),
which achieved great popularity. The publisher, Kagaya Kichiemon,
had been previously little known, but this series brought him
instant celebrity. Kuniyoshi also painted landscapes and pictures of
fishes in the Western style. For a master to be active across so
broad a spectrum was very uncommon. He became extremely popular: his
school continues to this day. Its leading representatives include
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Mizuno Toshikata, Kaburagi Kiyokata and Ito
Towards the end of the Edo period, Kikukawa Eizan (1787—1867) and
Keisai Eisen (1791—1848) were also producing bijin-ga. Eizan
followed the later style of Utamaro (see below), and supplied
evidence of his talents in many fields. From the type of
strong-willed woman with evident joie de vivre portrayed by
Utamaro, Kunisada took over the finely drawn eyes and projecting
One of the 100 Heroes from the Popular Tale of Suikoden.
Tanmeiji Rogen Shogo
8 Views from the Tale of Prince Genji
Return of the Ships to Akashi
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-r 849) took up painting m or around the
year An'ei (1779) under the name of Katsukawa Shunro. Strictly
speaking, Hokusai should already have been mentioned in connection
with the emergence of nishiki-e; since his characteristic
pictures are landscapes, however, and since his masterpiece, the
series " Views of Mount Fuji" (Fugaku sanjurokkei) was published in
the Tenpo era, he is discussed here. Hokusai was a pupil of Shunsho,
but studied the techniques of numerous schools and continually tried
out new styles, among them those of the Kano, Tosa and Korin
schools, in addition to deriving inspiration from Chinese and
Western painting. Later he found a style all of his own, adopting
the name by which he is now known. Devoting himself to landscape
painting, he attracted the attention of all his contemporaries. He
painted a whole variety of motifs, did illustrating work, designed
ink prints, and carved woodblocks himself, yet few individual
pictures by him survive. His name is inseparable from the "36 Views
of Mount Fuji'", which dates from the first half of the Tenpo era.
The depictions of the sacred mountain from a variety of viewpoints
using highly individual compositional techniques constitute his most
important ukiyo-e in the field of landscape.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797—1858) was a pupil of Utagawa Toyohiro (1773—
1829), who had studied together with Utagawa Toyokum (1769 — 1825).
In the history of landscape prints, Hiroshige is no less important
than Hokusai, but in comparison with his older colleague. Hiroshige
lived a relatively sedate life. He, too, was active at first in the
genres of yakuslia-e and bijin-ga. In the year Tenpo 1
(1830), he caused a stir with his series of "Famous Places in the
Eastern Capital" (Totomeisho), which appeared under the signature "Ichiyusai"
through the Kawaguchi Shozo publishing house. It was not until two
years later, in Tenpo (1832), that he accompanied the lokuoawa
government on a journey to Kyoto. On the way, he made a number of
sketches, which were brought out on his return to Edo by the
publishing house of Hoeido under the title "Tokaido gojusan tsugi no
uchi" (53 Stations on the Tokaido). The series was typical of his
romantic landscape style. It deals with the four seasons and the
everyday lives of the people of Japan, and it made him and his works
well-known throughout the country. Hiroshige depicted other famous
locations, for example the Kisokaido, but his work concentrates
largely on Edo and its environs, where he lived. One of his
masterpieces is an eight-part series featuring famous sights of Edo,
"Edokinko hakkei". He gives expression to their beauty through great
precision of line, sophisticated composition and a romantic feeling
for nature. In his work "Tamagawa shugetsu", he depicts a scene
on the banks of the Tamagawa on a moonlit autumn evening in such a way
that the viewer really feels the chill in the air. Here, as in many
of his works, he included a poem, an indication of his literary
upbringing. It is above all his highly personal sensitivity to
nature, based upon his feeling for lyrical effect, which conveys the
impression that we, the viewers, are really present at the place
depicted, a statement which is no less valid now than it was in his
During the Kaei era (1848-1854), many foreign ships came to Japan.
It was a period of unrest, a state of affairs reflected in the
nkiyo-e of the time. Numerous pictures and caricatures were
produced which alluded to the current situation in the country.
Following the Meiji restoration in 1868, all kinds of cultural
imports came to Japan from the West, photography and printing
techniques being received with particular enthusiasm. As a result,
the art of ukiyo-e went into decline.
Ukiyo-e is an art form with a history spanning more than
three centuries. It developed as the bourgeoisie's own form of
cultural expression, and is unique in the world. In the course of
time, the style of ukiyo-e naturally underwent changes, as
did the lives of the people with which these woodblock prints were
closely linked. But from Japan they have travelled the world;
unbeknown to their creators, ukiyo-e have had a profound
influence on modern Western painting. With this in mind, we can
still appreciate their great vitality today.
see also collection: