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Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints Collage

Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints - History and Concepts

Started: 1672
Ended: 1880s
Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints Timeline

Beginnings of Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

Precedents: Yamato-e

<i>East Wing</i> from the illustrated scroll of <i>Tale of Genji</i> (c. 1130) is an early example of <i>yamato-e</i>

Yamato-e, or classical "Japanese style" painting, developed in the 12th century. With its aerial perspectives, precise detail, clear outlines, and flat color, the art form existed in contrast to other styles of Japanese painting that reflected the influence of the Chinese. Japanese aesthetics were often dominated by Chinese styles, as shown in the Kanō School's primacy in the late 1400's, where it was known for its screens depicting landscapes on gold leaf backgrounds, created for the castles of feudal lords. At the same time, other schools arose to advocate Japanese styles and subjects. In the mid-1400s, the artist Tosa Yukihoro established the Tosa School, which furthered yamato-e, portraying stories from Japanese history and classical literature.

One of the earliest examples of yamato-e was the illustrated scroll of the Tale of Genji (11th century), thought to be the first novel ever written anywhere, by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman serving in the Heian court. Yamato-e emphasized the depiction of everyday details and people, as well as stories that had a deep connection to Japanese culture.

Edo Period (1603-1868)

During the Edo period, called such because Japan's capital had been moved to Tokyo (then called Edo), the country was under rule by the Tokugawa shogunate. This military regime enforced social segregation by emphasizing a hierarchal class system with warriors at the top, followed by farmers, craftsmen, and then merchants at the bottom. The regime also set aside certain walled areas in the cities where theatres, teahouses, and brothels were licensed and which came to be known as the "pleasure districts." It was a relatively peaceful time domestically and isolationist in relationship to the rest of the world. As a result, art that reflected this decidedly Japanese lifestyle found a new audience with a rising middle class. Ukiyo-e was born as an evolution of yamato-e, one in which the new lifestyle was emphasized and celebrated.

The subjects of these worldly pleasures, as well as their inhabitants such as famous courtesans, kabuki actors, and the like became the preferred creative fodder of ukiyo-e prints. The prints were popular 'low' art forms, created for the merchant class and the urban working population, but soon came to be considered masterful works of art.

<i>The Hikone Screen</i> (1624-1644) by an unknown artist is an early <i>ukiyo-e</i> painting on a Japanese folding screen and has been attributed by some scholars to Iwasa Matabei.

Iwasa Matabei was a well-known painter of works depicted on byobu during this time. Though trained in the Kanō School, the Tosa School's traditional Japanese subjects and styles primarily influenced his mature work. His portrayals of geishas, hostesses who entertained by playing instruments, dancing, and reciting classical Japanese poetry, as well as the leisure life of the middle class became early examples of ukiyo-e painting.

Hishikawa Moronobu's well-known <i>Beauty Looking Back</i> (17<sup>th</sup> century) shows how the artist, like many <i>ukiyo-e</i> masters, not only created woodblock prints but paintings, like this color work on silk, of bold line and strong outline.

Another artist, Hishikawa Moronobu, is considered to be the first great master and originator of ukiyo-e prints because of the book illustrations he began making in 1672. As color printing had not yet been invented, his prints were primarily monochromatic, though he also hand-painted some of them. He brought together the disparate elements of preceding ukiyo-e imagery and subject matter and formalized the art form with his mastery of line derived from calligraphy. His visuals included street scenes of ordinary life, images of reference to famous stories, poems, or historical events, and landscapes, images of beautiful women, and erotic prints. As a result, he is considered to be both the last of the proto-ukiyo-e artists and the first true ukiyo-e artist.

Ukiyo-e remained the dominant art form during the last century of the Edo period.

The Process of Ukiyo-e

Utagawa Kunisada's print (1857) depicts the actual printing process for ukiyo-e, though he has staffed the shop with beautiful women, rather than actual craftsmen.

Ukiyo-e depended upon collaboration between four people. The artist, using ink on paper, drew the image that was then carved by a craftsman into a woodblock. A printer then applied pigment to the woodblock, and a publisher oversaw and coordinated the process and marketed the works. Ukiyo-e were most commonly produced as a sheet of prints, which were so inexpensive that many could afford them. They also were collected in books, called e-hon. Sometimes, a print might be made using two or three sheets of paper, creating a triptych effect. Portraits used a vertical format, landscapes a horizontal format, but occasionally, vertical and narrow prints would be made, creating the effect of a scroll that would be displayed on columns or pillars.

Nishiki-e "Brocade Prints"

Suzuki Horunobo's <i>Girl on a Bridge in the Wind</i> (1769) is an early example of his brocade prints, and combines <i>bijin-ga</i> with its depiction of a beautiful young woman and <i>shunga's</i> eroticism as her leg is revealed.

Suzuki Horunobu revolutionized ukiyo-e when in 1765 he invented the process to make nishiki-e, or "brocade prints," that made possible a full employment of color. The process involved making a series of woodblocks, all bearing the same image, and then a single color being applied to each block, so that the color on the final print was the result of layers of pigment. The pigments used were vegetable-based and water soluble and resulted in a subtle and rich palette. As many as 20 woodblocks might be used, each employing a different color, to print a single image on handmade paper. Horunobu's work influenced countless ukiyo-e artists.

Ukiyo-e Schools

Most ukiyo-e artists not only studied under a particular master but also would take the name of that master. Between 1672 and 1890 thirty ukiyo-e schools developed, each representing the particular style of its founder as well as several generations of its subsequent artists. The existence of these various schools overlapped throughout the years but the most important schools were the Torii School, the Katsukawa School, and the Utagawa School.

Torii School (1670-1815)

Masanobu Okumura's <i>Shibai Ukie</i> (1741-1744) depicts a kabuki theater during its early days.

The Torii School began in the early-18th century with the works of Torii Kiyonobu I, who was a student of Moronobu. Kiyonobu I came from a family of prominent designers of kabuki promotional materials, and due to his own theatrical experience and interest, the Torii School pioneered the subject of kabuki theatre, which became one of the dominant themes of ukiyo-e prints. The school's style emphasized kabukian drama and its actors with their generalized appearances through bold designs with thick, energetic lines.

The Torii School became the dominant style of the 1700s as a new generation of artists came to the forefront. The school was innovative in using urushi-e prints, where the ink could be mixed with glue to create a lacquer effect or where mica or metal dust would be added to create a shimmering quality. They also explored Benizuri-e prints, "crimson printed" or "rose prints," in which a limited number of colors, often including green and pink, were applied to the printing process.

Noted artists associated with the Torii School included Suzuki Harunobo, who invented nishiki-e brocade prints, Kitagawa Utamaro, and founder Torii Kiyonaga. All three artists became celebrated for their bijin-ga prints, depicting beautiful women.

Katsukawa School (1750-1840)

The Katsukawa School, founded by Miyagawa Shunsu around 1750, was the first to portray kabuki actors in a way that departed from generic depiction and emphasized their individual characteristics and personalities. Katsukawa Shunshō pioneered these recognizable portraits, sometimes portraying actors in their dressing rooms.

Tsuyuki Kōshō 's <i>Hokusai and Eijo in their lodgings</i> (before 1893) shows the artist working on an ink drawing while his daughter, herself a noted artist, watches.

A more realistic depiction of people carried over into other genres of ukiyo-e, as seen in Katsushika Hokusai's famous images of ordinary people in everyday life. Under the artist name Shunro early in his career, Hokusai was a member of the Katsukawa School. However, he innovatively began to explore the perspective and shading of Western art in his prints, resulting in his expulsion from the school. Hokusai described this significant event: "What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunko's hands." Relentlessly innovative, he went on to create over 30,000 works and in the course of his long life took 30 artist names. He first became famous for his manga, which were books that contained woodblock prints of his sketches that art critic John-Paul Stonnard has described to contain, "every subject imaginable: real and imaginary figures and animals, plants and natural scenes, landscapes and seascapes, dragons, poets and deities combined together in a way that defies all attempts to weave a story around them."

Utagawa School (1770-1860)

Utagawa Kunisada's <i>Memorial Portrait of Utagawa Hiroshige</i> (1858) conveys a powerful and meditative presence.

The Utagawa School was founded by Utagawa Toyoharu in the 1760s and lasted into the 1850s, being in effect the last great school of ukiyo-e. Toyoharu was known for incorporating the perspective of Western art into his prints, like Perspective Pictures of Places in Japan: Sanjūsangen-dō in Kyoto, (c. 1772-1781) and a number of his students continued the exploration. Some 400-500 artists were either members of the school or associated with it, and the school created a majority of the known surviving ukiyo-e prints. By the mid-19th century, the school's prodigious production resulted in a kind of stereotypical portraiture, depicting lantern-jawed and somewhat exaggerated noses, resulting in criticism and a sense of ukiyo-e's decline. The renowned Hokusai was even to protest to his publisher that the woodblock carver kept altering the noses of his figures. Nonetheless the school became the best known of all ukiyo-e schools because it included the artists Toyokuni and Utagawa Hiroshige. Hiroshige became known as one of the all-time great masters of ukiyo-e who revived the art with his focus on serial views of landscape and scenes of ordinary life.

Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Ukiyo-e was known for a number of genres depicting certain aspects of Japanese life. These included bijin-ga, shunga, yakusha-e, kacho-ga, and landscape.


Keisai Eisen's A <i>Courtesan</i> (1830) shows the celebrity's trendsetting fashion.

Bijin-ga, meaning "beautiful person picture," was a dominant genre of ukiyo-e. Early prints often depicted famous courtesans who were often viewed as celebrities, but subsequently, artists like Utamaro would portray women who were known for their beauty from the urban population. Some of the other great masters of the genre were Suzuki Harunobu, Keisai Eisen, Itō Shinsui, Toyohara Chikanobu, Uemura Shōen, Isoda Koryûsai, and Torii Kiyonaga.

The portraits reflected not only changing standards of beauty in Japanese culture but the artist's sensibility. Isoda Koryûsai's prints in the mid-1760's often depicted a willowy feminine figure, whereas around the same time Kitao Shigemasa emphasized the dainty figure. Working in the late 1700s, Utamaro's figures were among the first to become individualized, communicating the figure's personality and mood. Rather than following an idealized treatment, he developed his own style, as his figures were often thin but with proportionally long heads, leading to his work being dubbed ōkubi-e, or "large head" portraits.


Hishikawa Moronobu's <i>Lovers in Boudoir</i> (1682), using what has been called his characteristic “singing line,” depicts a nobleman, his lover, and his attendant at his country estate.

The term shunga can be translated in Japanese as "pictures of spring," as spring euphemistically refers to sex. The term is also taken from shunkyū-higi-ga, the Japanese term for Chinese scrolls depicting the twelve sexual acts that were an expression of yin and yang. Shunga became a popular subject, as both men and women bought the images, usually sold in small books. Shunga depicted ordinary people, but also courtesans, and while the imagery was predominantly heterosexual, gay and lesbian relationships were also depicted.

The genre was governed by various conventions; figures were usually depicted clothed as this allowed their social standing to be identified, and their genitalia was exaggerated. In Japan the traditional custom of communal bathing meant that the nude was not eroticized. Shunga could be both subtle as seen in the early works of Moronobu, where gestures of the couple or the flowing lines of their sleeves evoke the erotic encounter, or so explicit that, at various times during the Edo period, the government attempted to ban or censor the works as pornographic.


Tōshūsai Sharaku's <i>Sawamura Yodogorō II and Bandō Zenji as Kawatsura Hōgen and Onisadobō in the Play “Koinyōbō Somewake Tazuna”</i> (1794) shows the two notable actors in their roles.

Yakusha-e, or "actor pictures," were prints depicting kabuki actors. Often sold in single sheets, the prints were inexpensive and were available as souvenirs following a particular theatrical production. The prints also helped promote the actor's celebrity, and, aware of this, kabuki theatre productions would sometimes invite artists to attend rehearsals. In early yakusha-e, actors were depicted as generic types, though noted masters like Katsukawa Shunshō began to create realistic portraits. However, the greatest master of the genre Tōshūsai Sharaku was not associated with any school, as shown in his dynamic and often unflattering treatments that revolutionized the genre in the late 1700s.


Katsushika Hokusai's <i>Cuckoo and Azaleas</i> (1834) includes a classical poem on the left which refers to the legend that when the Chinese general Du Fu died, a cuckoo called out.

Another major genre of ukiyo-e were kachō-ga or "bird and flower" paintings, a style influenced by the Chinese traditional genre of flowers, birds, fish, and insects painting. Blank space was an important element of kachô-ga, reflected in selecting only a single species of bird paired with a single plant, and leaving much of the surrounding space as broad planes of color, in order to create the sense of nature's simplicity and harmony.

Hiroshige's <i>Isaki and Kasago Fish</i>, from the series Uozukushi (Every Variety of Fish) (1830s) depicts two species with plant sprigs and a classical poem written above.

As a traditional genre of painting, making bird and flower images created a sense of artistic authenticity for ukiyo-e artists, establishing their work as part of a long tradition. A number of them, including Hokusai and Hiroshige, were to create such works, often including the text of a classical poem or making an allusion to a historical or cultural reference..


Katsushika Hokusai's <i>A Thunderstorm below the Summit</i>, from his <i>36 Views of Mount Fuji</i> (1831-1834), unlike many <i>ukiyo-e</i> landscapes, leaves out any human figures.

The shogunate, or military government, of the Edo period required that all feudal lords had to own residences in Tokyo (Edo) and divide their time between residence in the city and their domains. As a result, five major highways were built, like the Tôkaidô Highway, spanning over 300 miles between Tokyo and Kyoto, which became thoroughfares for merchants, pilgrimages, and sightseers who were drawn to famous places. These places had an often spiritually historical significance, influenced by the Shinto religion of Japan, which stated that each place was occupied by kami, which has been variously translated as 'god,' 'spirit,' or 'divine essence.' Shrines in honor of kami were common throughout Japan. Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige are the most renowned ukiyo-e artists of landscape art. Hiroshige made landscape a primary emphasis as seen in his Fifty-Three Stages of the Tôkaido (1833-1834) and One Hundred Views of Famous Places of Edo (1856-1859). Hakusai's Fifty Views of Mount Fuji (1830-1832) shows a variety of scenes: from farmers in their fields to travelers on a road - while the ever-present holy Mount Fuji, is in the background - traditionally viewed as containing the secret of immortality in Japanese culture, dominates the background.

Later Developments - After Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

In Europe, the arrival of woodblock prints in the 1850s spawned the loose movement called Japonism (Japonisme in French). This craze for all things Japanese, had a great, almost immeasurable, impact upon artists and artistic movements. James Abbot McNeill Whistler, who led both the Tonalism painting movement and the Aesthetic Movement, was greatly influenced by the Japanese prints's use of color and composition. Most of the leading Impressionists, like Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, and Post-Impressionists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin, were inspired by ukiyo-e, as was Gustav Klimt whose work led the to the development of Art Nouveau.

However, the same opening to trade that led to Japonisme in Europe fed the decline of ukiyo-e in Japan. The influx of European ideas, technology, and art radically transformed the culture, and traditional ukiyo-e ended in the 1880s. Though some artists were to continue working in prints, the market for them had disappeared, replaced by the desire for European inspired art.

In early-20th-century Japan, several Japanese art movements were influenced by ukiyo-e. Nihonga, a school that emphasized traditional Japanese painting, as opposed to Western influenced work (called the Yōga movement), was inspired by ukiyo-e artists like Kōno Bairei. Additionally, the sōsaku-hanga and shin-hanga movements were to revive elements of ukiyo-e.

The Sōsaku-hanga, or creative prints, movement was launched in 1904 with the creation of Kanae Yamamoto's Fisherman (1904). The artist eschewed the traditional collaborative process to make the woodblock print, drawing, carving, printing, and publishing it on his own. The movement emphasized this solitary process and connected it to a modern sense of art as an expression of individuality.

In 1915 the Shin-hanga, or new prints, movement followed. In contrast, shin-hanga returned to the four person ukiyo-e process and focused on traditional ukiyo-e subjects while being greatly influenced by Impressionism and creating prints primarily for Western art dealers and collectors. Hashiguchi Goyô's Woman at Her Bath (1915) reflected both the influence of Kitagawa Utamaro and Jean-Auguste-Domique Ingres in its depiction of a nude from Western tradition.

Both the shin-hanga and sōsaku-hanga continued in the following decades, attracting subsequent generations of artists. Both movements underwent a revival following World War II when prints became popular with Americans during the American Occupation of Japan.

In the 1950s, some creative print artists like Hagiwara Hideo turned to abstraction and the next generation, including Keiji Shinohara, began revisiting and re-conceptualizing ukiyo-e. Shinohara moved to the United States in the early 1980s where he has collaborated with such noted artists as Balthus, Chuck Close, and Sean Scully. Ukiyo-e also influenced the flat colors, subjects, and black outlines of Japanese anime and manga. The founder of the Superflat movement, Takashi Murakami, was influenced by the Edo period's eccentric painters, as seen in his Durama paintings (2011). Similarly, in the West, contemporary artists continue to turn to Japanese prints, as seen in the British contemporary artist Julian Opie's saying of Hiroshige's prints, "I often use them as a source of inspiration."

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.

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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
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First published on 22 Feb 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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