Introduction and Brief History

 This is genre of Japanese Art, the artists of which largely employed Woodblock Printing to produce stunning prints of a wide spectrum of subjects such as historical events, folk tales and legends, kabuki actors, landscapes, flora and fauna; and erotica or Shunga.

Rare Japanese Woodblock PrintSince antiquity, Japanese art had found patrons in aristocracy, military governments, and religious authorities. The created artworks were considered works of luxury afforded only by the ruling samurai and rich merchant classes. Later works including monochromatic paintings of females and scenes from theatre and pleasure districts followed which could be afforded by general public but since these were handmade paintings their production was limited. This limit was soon overcome by mass-producedwoodblock printing technique.

The word Ukiyo-e literally translates to ‘pictures of the Floating World’. It was called so because at the time this art flourished, Edo (modern Tokyo) was the center of military dictatorship that brought about fast economic growth, which benefited the merchant class. The affluent merchant community indulged in rich entertainments such as kabuki theatre, courtesans, geisha etc. and such a hedonistic lifestyle came to be known as Ukiyo (floating world). Japanese artists of that time created woodblock prints on such themes of dance, art , history, theatre and a full-fledged Japanese art genre Ukiyo-e evolved by the late 17th century.

Antique Japanese Print of Kabuki Actors

These prints were afforded and bought by wealthy merchants to decorate their homes.These were very sought after art prints, meant for the wealthy.

Starting with monochromatic Japanese Prints pioneered by Hishikawa Moronob in the 1670’s, Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Print art advanced first to prints with certain colored areas and then by the 1760’s to production of vibrantly colored Japanese Woodblock Prints that employed multiple woodblocks. 

By the late 18th century a thriving fraternity of master Japanese Woodblock Print artists had come about comprising of renowned artists such as Kiyonaga, Utamaro, Sharaku and others.

A pair of noted master artists, Hokusai and Hiroshige came about in the 19th century who were best known for their landscape woodblock prints. Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa and Hiroshige’s The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido are among the best-noted works among Japanese Woodblock Prints of the Ukiyo-e genre.

It is to be noted that while some Ukiyo-e artists were painters, most of the works from this Japanese art genre are Woodblock Prints.

However with the advent of Meiji Restoration (a revolution in Japan in the 19th century) that brought about technological and social modernization and with deaths of senior master artists, particularly Hokusai and Hiroshige, Ukiyo-e woodblock print production went down steeply.

Since this art largely flourished during 17th through 19th centuries, the Japanese Woodblock Prints available for sale today are all antiques.

Transformation of Ukiyo-e from Paintings to Woodblock Prints

Strikingly Colored Japanese Print

The earliest Ukiyo-e artists were painters. The Yamato-e painting style (Japanese paintings that are influenced by Tang dynasty paintings) of the 17th century had developed a style of outlined forms that involved inks to be dripped on wet surfaces which would spread out towards the outlines. This became a dominant style in Ukiyo-e paintings.

Evolution of Ukiyo-e into an independent school was marked by popularity of painted hanging scrolls known as Portraits of Kanbun Beauties  around 1661 and paintings of Kanbun era (1661-73).

It was Hishikawa Moronobu, a Japanese artist-illustrator who lived from 1618 – 1694, who produced the first Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints to meet the increasing demand for Ukiyo-e Japanese art.

Moronobu was hugely successful in his endeavor and went on to develop a unique style portraying female beauties. He also began producing illustrations not just for books but also as single-sheet images that could be solo or a part of a series of sheets portraying a complex scene or event.

When Hishikawa’s school of art style attracted a big following and also imitators, a new art form  of Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints was born.

Evolution of Color and Complexity in Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints

A Delicately Colored Japanese Woodblock PrintThere was a natural demand for color in monochromatic prints and initially these were colored externally for special commissions. Prints in early 18 century were hand-tinted orange or occasionally green or yellow.

There was also a vogue for pink-tinted prints and lacquer-like effects with ink subsequently but it was in 1744 that first successes were achieved in color printing with multiple woodblocks, one for each color. Though earliest colors were beni pink and vegetable green but a method was now in place for introduction of complex color shades in prints.

 In the late 18th century Ukiyo-e reached a peak with full-color prints. These were brilliantly colored and called Nishiki-e meaning ‘brocade pictures’. These Japanese Woodblock Prints first emerged as expensive calendar prints for sale printed with multiple woodblocks on very fine paper with thick, opaque inks. The woodblocks for these Japanese prints were later re-used for mass Japanese Woodblock Prints available for sale.

Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) was the first to layout delicate, romantic Japanese Woodblock Prints that realized the expressive and complex color designs. These Japanese woodblock prints were printed with up to a dozen separate blocks to handle color and half-tone variety. These colored woodblock prints were a dominant style 1765 onwards and caused a steep decline in demand for other styles with limited palettes of Benizuri-e and Urushi-e, alongwith hand-colored prints.

 Following Harunobu’s death in 1770 Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Printing art expanded with artists like Katsukawa Shunsho producing high fidelity portraits such as those of Kabuki actors and collaborators such as Koryusai and Kitao Shigemasa who largely depicted women and contemporary urban fashions celebrating real-world courtesans and geisha.

 Around the same period, i.e. 1770s, Utagawa Toyoharu introduced Western perspective techniques in Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints enabling inclusion of landscapes among Ukiyo-e subjects. By 19th century these techniques were assimilated in Japanese woodblock printing art enabling renowned Japanese print artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige to include highly refined landscapes in their Japanese prints later on.

The Peak Period of Ukiyo-e Japanese Art

 Ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock Prints as an art reached its peak in late 18th century and then suffered sharply under tensions of reforms of Meiji Restoration in the 19th century.

 The 1780s for example, scenes of traditional Ukiyo-e Japanese Art subjects like beauties, realistic style kabuki actors including musician and chorus, and urban set ups emerged on large sheets of paper, often as multiprint horizontal diptychs or triptychs, depicted by the artist Torii Kiyonaga.

Peak of Japanese Woodblock Print Art

 Another Japanese artist, Utamaro was popular in 1790s for portraits of beautiful women that focused on the head and upper torso. He experimented extensively with line, color, printing techniques to highlight subtle differences in subjects from a wide variety of class and background in terms of their features, expressions, and backdrops.

 An accomplished Japanese artist Sharaku emerged in 1794 for a short period of ten months in 1794. Within this short span of career he produced striking portraits of Kabuki actors. His prints were realistic in that they emphasized differences in the actor and the character portrayed. His prints depicting expressive, contorted faces were in contrast to those of Harunobu or Utamaro, Kabuki characters in whose prints had serene, mask-like faces. Sharaku’s work ceased mysteriously and his identity is still unknown.

Introduction of Landscape, Flora and Fauna in Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints

 Landscape and Nature prints emerged during Tenpo Reforms in 19th century when outward displays of luxury, affluence and even depiction of actors and courtesans were suppressed.

 Beautiful Japanese Landscape PrintUkiyo-e artists then shifted their focus on producing Japanese Woodblock Prints with landscapes, nature, travel scenes, birds and flowers as subjects. So far these subjects were given limited attention, even though these formed an important element in the works of Kiyonaga and Shuncho. However by the late Edo period landscape developed as a genre of its own, particularly through works of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Japanese landscape prints differed from their western counterparts in that these relied heavily on imagination, creativity and atmosphere rather than strict adherence to nature.

 Hokusai, self-proclaimed as ‘mad painter’ created work focused on formalism influenced by Western art besides the lack of sentimentality that is common to Ukiyo-e Japanese Prints in general. He created much illustrious work including the famous Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji that also includedhis best-known Japanese print and one of the most famous works of Japanese woodblock print art - The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji was instrumental to popularization of landscape genre in the art of Japanese woodblock printing. Subsequently other established Japanese woodblock print masters such as Eisen, Kuniyoshi and Kunisada followed Hokusai in 1830s to produce striking landscape woodblock prints with bold compositions.

 Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) who specialized in prints of birds, flowers and serene landscapes and is best known for his travel series Japanese prints such as The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido and Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaido, came to be known as Hokusai’s greatest rival.

Hiroshige’s legacy of art continued through his followers, Hiroshige II, his adopted son and Hiroshige III, son-in-law.

Decline of the Art of Japanese Woodblock Printing

The art of Ukiyo-e suffered its unfortunate decline in the late 19th Century.

 It declined sharply in quality and quantity following the deaths of Hokusai and Hiroshige and the Meiji Restoration of 1868 in view of rapid Westernization that saw Japanese woodblock printing turn its services to journalism and face competition from photography. Synthetic pigments imported from Germany began to replace traditional organic ones.

 It became hard to find pure Ukiyo-e artists and people at large lost interest in a genre that was now seen a remnant of an obsolescent era.

 Artists produced notable works occasionally, particularly the Utagawa school produced a few masters.

- Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) excelled in making Japanese portrait prints of courtesans and actors.
- Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) produced Japanese prints in variety of themes and styles. His historical scenes of warriors in violent    combat were popular.
- Utagawa Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) created gruesome scenes of murders and ghosts, monsters and supernatural beings, and legendary Japanese and Chinese heroes. His One Hundred Aspects of the Moon series is noteworthy.
- Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1892) created woodblock prints that documented modernization of Tokyo, such as advent of railways and events from modern wars like that of Japan with China and with Russia.
- Matsuno Chikanobu (1838 – 1912) took to creating Japanese prints depicting the imperial family and themes based on Western influence on Japanese life in the Meiji period.
- Toyohara Kunichika (1835 - 1900) Possessed deep admiration and knowledge of Kabuki drama that inspired him to produce woodblock prints focussed primarily on actors and scenes from popular plays.
- Morikawa Chikashige (?) Very little is known about his life or background. Some researchers have claim that he lived from 1835 until 1900.
- Hasegawa Sadanobu (1834 - 1879) is known for Japanese woodblock print designs of landscapes, flowers and birds, actors, beautiful women and miniature copies of prints by Ando Hiroshige.

Nonetheless by the 1890s the tradition of Ukiyo-e was moribund.

Original Works Of A Few Renowned Japanese Print Art Masters For Sale


Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunichika - click to buy Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunichika - click to buy Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunichika - click to buy 
Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunichika - click to buy Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunichika - click to buy Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunichika - click to buy


Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunisada - click to buy Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunisada - click to buy Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunisada - click to buy
 Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Kunisada - click to buy    


Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Chikanobu - click to buy Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Chikanobu - click to buy Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Chikanobu - click to buy


Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Chikashige - click to buy


Original Japanese Woodblock Print by Sadanobu - click to buy