The Floating World of Ukiyo-e


In the Edo period, wood-block prints, called ukiyo-e, or pictures of the pleasure ­seeking “floating world” became the most popular pictorial art of Japan. They had a profound influence on artists such as Matisse and Van Gogh. Although today they are credited to individual artists, they were in fact a cooperative effort between the publisher, responsible for financing and distributing the work; the artist, who produced a fine line drawing; the carver, who pasted the drawings onto blocks of wood and carved away what was not to appear on the print, making one block for each color; and the printer, who inked the wooden blocks and pressed them onto the paper – one for each color, starting with the lightest.

Editions were limited to 100-200 copies. The first artist known by name was Moronobu, who died in 1694. The golden age of ukiyo-e lasted from about 1790 to the 1850s. Beautiful women, Kabuki actors, scenes from Japan, including Shitamachi, and the supernatural were recurring themes.

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