Ukiyo-e is the Japanese art of woodblock prints that became extremely popular from 17th through 19th centuries and was aimed at the prosperous merchant class in the urbanizing Edo period (1603–1867).
A literal translation of ukiyo-e is ‘pictures of a floating/fleeting/sad world’.
Ukiyo (浮き世) refers to the fleeting world of the Yoshiwara, the entertainment quarter of Edo, the former name of Tokyo in the Tokugawa-period.
The reversed day-night rhythm, the transient beauty of the courtisanes and prostitutes, the temporary and illusionary character of the surrogate love, … Those were the ingredients that shaped this world.
Edo, a booming, bustling town, full of feverish building activities was also a thriving merchant centre, where a new class of citizens made their fortune in business.
They felt proud of their own success and were ready to show off their wealth.
Artists flocked to the city and catered to the appetite of the rich. By consequence, the merchants became patrons for some new forms of art. In theatre, this was kabuki, in contrast to the formal No.
In painting, it was ukiyo-e, as opposed to the lavishly decorated rolls and screens.
Ukiyo-e featured all kinds of city related themes; from street views, over Kabuki actors, to landscapes.
A separate section focused on beautiful women, bijin-e.
Another section was erotic, pornographical in nature, shunga.
Originally, the woodblock prints were monochrome. A publisher would give an artist a commission to draw a picture or a series of pictures, depending on what he thought was sellable. Based on the drawing, a craftsmen would cut the printing block and print with it.
When the prints became two-coloured or even quadri, the production process became much more labour intensive, as for each colour a separate block needed to be carved.
Still, the printing approach enabled a form of mass production for art, that hitherto had not existed.
Some names of artists, such as Harunobu, Moronobu, and certainly Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro were preserved for eternity, but the names of the craftsmen were lost.
The art form suited the fleeting world well, since the prints were made on cheap rice paper, which wasn’t exactly durable material. The chosen themes followed the fashion of the moment. One moment they were popular, next moment they were being disposed of.
During the late 1800s, some ukiyo-e prints became popular with westerners, especially in France and this almost by accident. In those days, almost everything either coming from or looking as if it came from Japan was in fashion.
The Japanese used the prints to wrap whatever they were shipping in and as such, the buyers received a extra, surprise gift.
Western artists even copied the Japanese style, and thus created the so called ‘Japonisme’.
The prints became an inspiration for cubism and many impressionist painters, Rather well-known is Van Gogh’s ‘Bridge in the Rain’, a quite explicit copy of Hiroshige’s ‘Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake’. But there are many more examples of Western art that were inspired by ukiyo-e.
To be honest, vice versa, some Japanese painters also started to create impressionist paintings themselves.
As some say, plagiarism can be the ultimate sign of admiration. In this case, it even worked both ways.