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Were gold and silver applied to ukiyo-e prints?


Before the year 2000, many researchers assumed that 18th and 19th century ukiyo-e printmakers typically incorporated gold, silver, or copper in their designs. In the absence of scientific analysis, the lustrous appearance of metallic powders on ukiyo-e prints would seem to support this idea. The use of precious metals for privately commissioned, luxurious surimono (privately issued print) and limited edition deluxe prints was also thought to be consistent with this conclusion. In addition, researchers have associated the metallics on ukiyo-e prints with the gold and silver leaf or powders applied to painted screens, albums, and illustrated hand scrolls, or with the gold and silver powders used in lacquerware.

Gakutei surimono c. 1896
Yashima Gakutei: Woman representing the Buddhist goddess Benzaiten (弁財天), from the series Allusions to the Seven Lucky Gods (Mitate shichifukujin: 見立七福神), originally late 1820s; this impression recut circa 1896.

Scientific analysis (see Shimoyama reference below) confirms that there were indeed some extremely rare print editions or experiments involving gold or silver on eighteenth and nineteenth-century Japanese prints. The famous series from 1765-66 by Suzuki Harunobu, titled Zashiki hakkei (A series of eight parlor views: 坐敷八景), included at least one design (Daisu no yau, Night rain on daisu: 台子の夜雨) with gold and silver. This applied only to the rare first edition of this series, which was an extraordinary commission from a Tokugawa retainer named Ôkubo Jinshirô (born Ôkubo Tadanobu, 1722-77), the founder of the influential Kyosen Renchû arts society and poetry club. Kyosen (Ôkubo's literary name; he also went by Jôsei Sanjin, "Recluse from west of the castle") is largely credited with funding Harunobu's earliest nishiki-e (full color "brocade pictures": 錦絵). His seal (reading "Kyosen": 巨川) appears on first-edition impressions, some of which he distributed privately in sets presented within an expensive paulownia boxes.

In most instances the use of precious metallic pigments would have been prohibitively expensive for the commoner or merchant class (chônin or "persons of the town") to support on a wide scale. In addition, various sumptuary edicts during the Edo period proscribed the use of gold and silver by the townspeople as ostentatious and inappropriate to their class. As the chônin began to amass wealth and live in a manner previously reserved only for the samurai estate, the bakafu (the Shogun's government) issued sumptuary laws to reinforce the distinctions between the classes, to encourage frugality, and to maintain a Neo-Confucian system of moral conduct (see Sumptuary Edicts). Many regulations proscribed the consumption of goods and services and placed limits on luxurious entertainment, identifying what was appropriate for members of each social level and closely correlating consumption with social status. Publishers and printmakers would have been cautious in risking the government's punitive response to displays of excessive luxury among the chônin, as such penalties were on occasion quite severe.

Gakutei print with sample area indicated

Detail of Sample Area for Pigment Analysis ("Gold-Color" Metal Particles) on Gakutei Surimono (c. 1896)

Metallic particles that had separated from the original glue binder and were lying loosely on the paper's surface were viewed under 40x magnification and collected by gently turning dry cotton swabs on the sample area. The swabs were then soaked in methanol, releasing the particles.

After the methanol evaporated, the particles were transferred to carbon-coated copper grids for TEM (Transmission Electron Microscopy). At least 10 particles were collected from each sample area (seven areas in all from three different woodblock prints, including the "gold-color" area shown above from a Meiji-period recut of a Gakutei surimono, circa 1896).

We used a Topcon 002B transmission electron microscope with a LaB6 filament operating at 200keV equipped wtih an EDAX super-thin window detector and EMiSPEC Vision System for spectrum imaging and analysis. Entire spectra were examined to make the identifications, and quantitative analysis, as always, was determined based on particular peaks.

I have published, along with two co-authors (see the first reference below for substantially more detailed information on this topic), an electron transmission analysis of metallic pigments on three 19th-century Japanese prints spanning about six decades. The earliest pigment samples were taken from an original surimono by the Edo artist Yanagawa Shigenobu II published in 1834 (see Shigenobu II for another impression of the design). The next samples were next taken from an original deluxe-style print in chûban-format by the Osaka artist Enjaku (see below and also Enjaku for the actual deluxe print used in the analysis) published in 1858. [Note that this Enjaku print was especially useful for comparisons because it contained examples of all three types of metallic pigments.] The final samples were obtained from a recarved c. 1896 copy of a surimono by Gakutei published originally in the late 1820s — early 1830s (see at the top of this page the Gakutei print as well as the detail of the gold-color sample area shown immediately above).

Enajku print with sample areas indicated

Enjaku (猿雀): Detail of sample areas from an 1858 actor print commemorating the play Danoura kabuto gunki (The Helmet Chronicle of Danoura: 壇浦兜軍記) performed in 11/1858 at the Tenma Theater, Osaka.

Although the metallic pigments in this example are especially well preserved, the scan shown here does not fully capture the more obvious differences in pigment colors compared to observation of the original print under slightly oblique illumination. The pigments are composed of variable mixtures with glue binders: virtually pure copper, zinc-rich brass ("silver"), and copper-rich brass ("gold").

All the metallic flakes found in the "gold-color," "silver-color," and "copper-color" pigments in all the samples from the three prints were analyzed by EDX (Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy). Our analysis yielded consistent results from all the metallic pigments, none of which included any gold or silver. Instead, after excluding insignificant trace elements present either as impurities from the metal ores or as by-products of metallurgical processes, we determined that all the metallic mixtures were composed primarily of three types of brass particles: copper-rich brass, near equi-atomic copper-zinc brass, and zinc-rich brass. To create the desired metallic color, printmakers used predominantly copper-rich brass for "gold," zinc-rich brass for "silver." In addition, either pure or nearly pure copper was used for the copper-color pigments.

This scientific evidence argues for a more cautious approach to describing the metallic powders applied to the great majority of ukiyo-e prints. While it might be disappointing to relinquish the assumption that metallic pigments on deluxe and surimono prints were gold or silver, the scientific evidence suggests otherwise. Perhaps "gold-color brass" and "silver-color brass" will serve well enough as appropriate terms to distinguish the copper-rich and zinc-rich powders, while "copper" remains an accurate term for the nearly pure copper found on ukiyo-e prints. Only in those extremely rare cases where it can be demonstrated that actual gold and silver have been applied to prints should we continue to use the terms "gold" or "silver."

Note: A related scientific analysis also found copper-rich brass for gold-color pigments; however, tin was identified for the silver-color pigments. It is possible that both zinc-rich brass and tin were options available to ukiyo-e printmakers. See the Duncan reference below). ©2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Duncan, SJ, Daniels, V, Fleming, LE: "The identification of metal foils and powders used on Japanese prints and paintings," in: Restaurator, 1990, v.11, no. 4, 244-253.
  • Fiorillo, John, Hashimoto, Rich, and Menon, Sarath: "An electron transmission analysis of metallic particles in nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints," in: Andon 65, 2000, pp. 5-17.
  • Shimoyama, S.: "Colorants employed in Suzuki Harunobu's prints "Night rain on the daisu' and "Ki no Tomonori' — A report on non-destructive analysis," in: Suzuki Harunobu. Chiba City Museum of Art and Hagi Uragami Museum, 2002, pp. 298-99.
  • Shively, Donald: "Sumptuary regulation and status in early Tokugawa Japan," in: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 25, 1965, pp. 123-164.

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