Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) prints and paintings (see Edo Links below) are among the most widely known and admired arts of the Edo period. With the rise of the merchant class during the 17th century, there followed a demand for images of contemporary urban life in a new style reflecting the lives of the commoners.
Ukiyo-e artists responded by taking their cues from incidental genre scenes in 16th- and 17th-century Tosa-school paintings as well as other sources (including the Kanô artists and the Nara-e illustrated books and scrolls), and then blending them with a fashionably modern approach into a hybrid form of plebian art. Ordinary life became the extraordinary focus, and before long several essential themes emerged.
Although ukiyo-e artists did not ignore classical subjects such as nature scenes, their response to the patrons of ukiyo-e resulted in subjects more specific to their own experience and distinct from the ostensibly more refined tastes of the ruling elite. Thus pictures of beautiful women (bijin-ga) quickly became a popular subject, especially sirens of the pleasure quarters or famous teahouse beauties of the day. The fantasies they afforded and the contexts they provided for idealized portraiture and depictions of the most up-to-date fashions can hardly be overstated.
Portraits of actors both on and off the stage were particularly popular with the avid fans of the kabuki theater (see image by Katsukawa Shunkô on the right), and the dramatizations of historical, military, legendary, and contemporary tales added to the storehouse of topics for printmakers. Daily amusements (customs, manners, festivals, entertainments) of the commoner class became fit subjects for ukiyo-e, as did the illustration of everyday domestic activities. Finally, while used in limited measure in early ukiyo-e, landscape art appeared in full bloom beginning in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
Ukiyo-e were the result of a collaborative quintet of artists, copyists, block cutters, printers, and publishers. Their skill and creativity often yielded designs of utmost refinement, as well as imaginative, earthy expressions of the lives of the commoners. Ukiyo-e represent one of the notable achievements of the Edo and Meiji periods, and at its best, there was no finer graphic art ever produced in the woodblock medium anywhere in the world. © 2021 by John Fiorillo