What is Ukiyo-e Art?
Ukiyo-e translates to “pictures of the floating world,” and references a certain style of prints from Japan during the Edo Period, from 1600 to mid 1800. These prints often depicted leisure in Japanese culture, infused with Japanese aesthetics of beauty, poetry, love, sex, and spirituality.
Subjects in Ukiyo-e prints include sumo wrestlers, courtesans, theatrical actors, geishas, warriors, and characters from literature. These figures, either fictitious or not, reinforce the idea of leisure—from entertainment to sex. Though these prints depict scenes where people are indulging in life’s pleasures, they were not read as immoral. During this time in the Edo Period, these sensual attributes were encouraged as part of a tranquil existence. It was a peaceful time between Japan and the rest of the world and the ruling class of the Edo period valued this tranquility by establishing “pleasure districts” throughout Japan for its citizens to enjoy life. Ukiyo-e prints, in many ways capture this shift in sentimentality during this time.
Ukiyo-e prints were often on Japanese scrolls or screens, which allowed for longer narratives. For the most part, there was a unified aesthetic style of Ukiyo-e, consisting of aerial perspectives, precise details, clear outlines, and flat color. The Ukiyo-e style was in many ways the continuation of the Yamato-e style, Japan’s “classical” style. Over time, Ukiyo-e artists began experimenting with new subject matters. For some, landscape scenes of Mount Fuji became popular as a symbol of serenity and paradise.
Ukiyo-e prints were also one of the first forms of Japanese art that came over to Europe and the United States. Once Japan began trading with the rest of the world, many of the island nation’s cultural expressions traveled overseas where they influenced Western artists. This exposure is known as Japonism and influenced many art movements including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Modernism.
Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. 1829-1832. Color Woodblock.
Katsushika Hokusai, Shichiri Beach in Sagami. 1830-1834. Color Woodblock.
Kitagawa Utamaro, The Courtesan Yosooi of the Matsubaya House. C. 1800. Color Woodblock