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Japanese printmaking: Ukiyo-e

Japanse prentkunst: Ukiyo-e - Lyklema Fine Art

Japanese art has been influenced by Buddhism from Korea and the Chinese. The drawing techniques are often Chinese with typical Chinese landscapes. Only later did they focus on the well-known Japanese court scenes around Kyoto, which were often drawn on horizontal scrolls. The ukiyo-e painters emerged in the 17th century, the Tokugawa period.

Color woodblock prints and Ukiyo-e

Although ukiyo-e and woodcutting techniques are often mentioned in the same breath, ukiyo-e is in principle separate from the printing technique used. The wood printing technique ensured large (cheap) print runs and large-scale distribution among the population and the popularization of this art form. The term 'ukiyo' comes from Buddhism and means 'a world of pain' in an impermanent world. The 'e' in ukiyo-e means image or print. Initially the subjects were beautiful women (courtesans & geishas), kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; usually very well-known and respected figures. Landscapes were first seen as inferior, but thanks to Hiroshige and Hokusai this became more and more accepted.

Influence on European art

Because the prints came to Europe as wrapping paper for Japanese porcelain, the impressionist artists became interested in Japanese printmaking. In addition to Van Gogh, Monet also owned hundreds of prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige. Courbet took over the theme of Hokusai's wave and started painting the waves in French art. Monet has a painting of his wife in a Japanese dress and he of course placed a Japanese bridge in his garden. Although all these artists have never been to Japan, the culture continued to interest them. Vincent van Gogh made (more or less) copies of a number of ukiyo-e. Monet was inspired by Japanese robes in the Japanese Dancer. That work did not have to be horizontally or vertically oriented but could have a diagonal viewing line was an insight for many Impressionists and later movements.

Woodprint technique

The (mirrored) drawing is glued to a wood block and cut out. The first multi-color prints were created (only) in the mid-18th century, using a different wood block for each color. The final quality therefore depends on the artist/designer, the woodcarver, the printer and the publisher.


Prints and signatures

Japanese prints often have explanatory texts, which are not in a fixed place in the print. Sometimes these are short stories, but they can also be poems such as haiku. Most prints also contain a number of stamps and a signature. A seal from the publisher was also usually not missing. The publisher was very important for the good quality of the print. Remember that the artist only made the drawing itself, but the wood cutting into the different blocks and the printing in the required colors was taken care of by the publisher.

The price

The quality after almost 250 years and price of original prints mainly concerns the preservation of the color, the number of minor damages and any cut-offs. At auction, an ukiyo-e by, for example, Andô Hiroshige can fetch between €300 and €500. Desirable prints sell for thousands of euros. Keep in mind that really good prints by Kunisada or Hirsoshige cost around €12,000.

The Most Famous Ukiyo-e Artists

The artists were often known by their 'first name' or actually their stage name. This name also changed quite often during an artist's life. They also often took the name of their master.

Andô Hiroshige
is known as Hiroshige or Hiroshige I, but Tanaka was his actual family name. He was adopted by the Andô family and, when he was 14, adopted the stage name Hiroshige, hence Andô Hiroshige. He studied with Utagawa Toyokuni and Utagawa Toyohiro, who later allowed him to use the name Utagawa. He is also known under the name Utagawa Hiroshige. His sons-in-law used the names Hiroshige II and Hiroshige III. Hiroshige initially made images of everyday life and later more and more landscapes. Often in series, such as images of "Fifty-three settlements on the Tôkaidô between Edo and Kyoto where travelers could rest. The series were made in both horizontal and vertical versions. Hiroshige also made a series of 36 about Mount Fuji." In addition to landscapes, he also drew many birds, plants and animals.

Suzuki Harunobu
(1725-1770) is considered one of the first to make multi-color prints (nishiki-e), in the mid-18th century. Harunobu made many erotic prints.

Kitagawa Utamaro
(1753-1806) became world famous for his many portraits of women. His first works appeared in 1775, but it was only after 1790 that most portraits of women appeared, often in their boudoir, initially mainly of well-known courtesans but later also of other well-known idols.


Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), known simply as Hokusai, is one of the great Japanese painters, although it is believed that he had no innate talent and was self-taught until the age of nineteen by studying the drawings of others. He was a bookseller, but also an apprentice woodblock cutter. He made many series of landscapes, based, among other things, on the copper engravings of the Dutch school. Until then, landscapes were not common, people mainly painted courtesans and actors. One of these series by Hokusai was: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. He made this when he was seventy. Many prints were made in different versions, with some minor (colour) changes made in later versions.

Source: Uchiyama's website about Japan and the boek 'Urikoy-e' by Harris

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