Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints Collage

Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

Started: 1672
Ended: 1880s
Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints Timeline
"When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs, but all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100 I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create - a dot, a line - will jump to life as never before."
1 of 2
"I leave my brush in the East
and set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land."
2 of 2

Summary of Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

Ukiyo-e, often translated as "pictures of the floating world," refers to Japanese paintings and woodblock prints that originally depicted the cities' pleasure districts during the Edo Period, when the sensual attributes of life were encouraged amongst a tranquil existence under the peaceful rule of the Shoguns. These idyllic narratives not only document the leisure activities and climate of the era, they also depict the decidedly Japanese aesthetics of beauty, poetry, nature, spirituality, love, and sex.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The people and environments in which the higher classes emerged themselves became the popular subjects for ukiyo-e works. This included sumo wrestlers, courtesans, the actors of kabuki theatre, geishas and teahouse mistresses, warriors, and other characters from the literature and folklore of the time.
  • By combining uki for sadness and yo for life, the word ukiyo-e originally reflected the Buddhist concept of life as a transitory illusion, involving a cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. But ironically, during the early Edo period, another ideograph which meant "to float," similarly pronounced as uki, came into usage, and the term became associated with wafting on life's worldly pleasures.
  • Ukiyo-e prints were often depicted on Japanese screens or scrolls, lending to their narrative feel. Although different artists brought their own signature styles, the pictures were weaved by a common look and feel that utilized aerial perspectives, precise details, clear outlines, and flat color, furthering the earlier yamato-e tradition of Japanese art.
  • Many subgenres blossomed beneath ukiyo-e's artistic umbrella to become known as its primary motifs. This included imagery of beautiful women, erotica, portraits of subjects with big heads, bird and flower pictures, and renditions of iconic natural landscapes such as Mount Fuji.
  • Ukiyo-e was one of the first forms of Japanese art that found its way across the seas to Europe and America with the opening of trade between the countries. The influence that this exposure had upon the West became known as Japonism, defined by an interest in the aesthetics of the style that would go on to profoundly influence many Western artists and movements such as Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and Modernism.
  • While in the beginning, ukiyo-e's was defined by a collaborative four person woodblock printing process, the movement's artists would soon come to revolutionize the creative use of printing through experimentations with material, color, mineral, and line to become an ancient forebear to the country's contemporary art movements such as Superflat.

Overview of Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

Detail from Hokusai's <i>South Wind, Clear Sky</i>, also known as <i>Red Fuji</i>, from the series <i>Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji</i> (1830-32). Following this series, he worked on the <i>One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji</i> series.

Announcing, “I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Art,’” Katsushika Hokusai created his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. The inexhaustible master was 74.

Do Not Miss

  • Japonism (Japonisme in French) describes the influence of Japanese art, especially woodblock prints, on French artists in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many Post-Impressionists were influenced by the flat blocks of color, the emphasis on design, and the everyday subject matter.
  • A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
  • Superflat is a postmodern art movement founded by Takashi Murakami, that is named for the flattened forms found in prevalent and historic Japanese graphic art, animation, pop culture, and fine arts. Superflat uses the juxtaposition of old and new techniques to explore subjects such as consumerism and sexual fetishism.

Important Art and Artists of Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

Two Lovers (c. 1675-80)

Artist: Hishikawa Moronobu

This print, deploying an aerial perspective which was a noted feature of Japanese art, depicts two lovers, a samurai warrior whose sword can be seen in the foreground lying beside him, and a woman whose discarded musical instrument lies in the right middle distance with the diagonal of its neck extending toward the right corner. Above the musical instrument, an outer robe seems to float through the air as if it had just been cast off. The room is depicted in elemental forms by means of horizontal and vertical lines that intersect at the couple, whose figures begin to flow together in the curvilinear forms of their figures, and robes. On the left an external balcony can be seen through an open panel.

Moronobu's family was in the textile business and he applied his knowledge in the pattern of the robes, but also in his understanding of how fabric moves when on the human body. His mastery of line originated in his understanding of calligraphy, as shown here in his varying thickness of preciseness to create the figures and their surroundings. As the lovers' sleeves and robes move in parallel lines, their fabric and figures begin to merge where their bodies meet. This is an early example of shunga and may have been the frontispiece for a 12 print series depicting the dance of sexual relations, as the frontispiece was often more decorous and posited as a kind of prelude.

Poem by Fujiwara no Motozane (c. 860) from the Series Thirty-Six Poets (c. 1768)

Artist: Suzuki Harunobu

In this print, a young woman, holding a bamboo rod in her left hand used to hang clothes upon a line, turns to look over her shoulder and lifts her right hand as if to stop her son from chasing a small chick. Along a fence in the middle left of the print, white unohana flowers bloom, indicating that it is early summer. A poem by Fujiwara no Motozane, one of the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets included in Harunobo's series of images, is written in a cloud-like shape along the upper part of the print. The words are translated by Jack Hillier as:

"Blossoming now in our mountain village,

the unohana flowers look like snow

still lingering on the hedge."

The flowing lines of the figures energetically curve from right to left and contrast with the flowering branches, curving from left to right, to convey graceful movement. Horunobu often blurred exterior and interior worlds to create a feeling of natural harmony, but his pioneering naturalism, depicting an actual mother and child in ordinary activity, made his work influential. Ukiyo-e's frequent depictions of a mother with her child, emphasizing line and design to convey emotion and relationship, influenced the work of Mary Cassatt as seen in The Child's Bath (1893).

The print also exemplifies Horunobu's subtle use of color, drawn from the Torii School's Benizuri-e "rose prints" application in which a limited number of colors, often including green and pink, were applied to the printing process. These varying shades both unify the composition and create a sense of vibrant life.

Interior of a Bathhouse (c. 1787)

Artist: Torri Kiyonaga

This print depicts a number of women, nude or partially robed, in various activities of bathing. Bathing was an important ritual in Japanese culture and communal bathhouse scenes were incorporated into ukiyo-e's everyday subject matter as one of the few to include treatment of the nude. The print is a double sheet print, with four women on the left side and four on the right, one of whom is washing a baby. In the upper center of both panels, a washing area is partially screened, showing a woman's lower torso as she washes herself. To the left, a small open panel and another, even smaller above it, captures a glimpse of the men's bathing area. The water buckets, some filled, others tipped over and empty are arranged in a diagonal line, that echoed by the diagonals of the flower board creates a vertical movement from the kneeling women in the foreground toward the partially screened bathing area. The composition's use of vertical and horizontal lines contrasts with the curvilinear figures, each of which is individualized, both in physical features and activities.

This particular print was formerly owned by the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, who was influenced not only by its vertical and horizontal composition, but the poses of the figures, caught in ordinary activity that is both intimate and revealing. Kiyonaga made several variations of this image, and this print is a second variation as the woman standing on the right sheet has been changed toward a more modest pose.

Useful Resources on Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

Do more

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
Available from:
First published on 22 Feb 2018. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]