Image: Hiroshige, Utagawa. Clear Weather after Snow at Nihonbashi Bridge (Nihonbashi yukibare no zu), Ukiyo-e.org, https://ukiyo-e.org/image/mfa/sc138424.
Art does not exist in a vacuum. To fully understand the rise of ukiyo-e as an artform, we must explore the history of its birthplace: the city of Edo, now known as Tokyo.
In the book Art of Edo Japan: the Artist and the City, historian and author Christine Guth identifies the origins of ukiyo-e in the consolidation of political power in the town of Edo in the early seventeenth century. According to Guth, the growth of ukiyo-e is deeply embedded in the political context of the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), a time when the people of Japan lived under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, an autocratic government that rigidly enforced its policies and took an active interest in cultivating and regulating the arts (Guth).
In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu moved the capital of Japan from its historic site in Kyoto to a town called Edo near the Eastern coast. Under the supreme rule of the shogun, Edo grew from a modest village into a prosperous capital with a vibrant and flourishing class of merchants known as the chōnin (Guth 11) . However, the social order of life in Edo was dominated by the shogun and the ruling class of samurai below him, who were committed to class separation and staunchly denied the lower classes any opportunity to move up the ladder (Guth 10). Thus the chōnin, despite their burgeoning wealth, had few opportunities for upwards political mobility.
With no venue to advance politically, the merchants instead amassed cultural clout by investing in the arts, displaying their social status through their patronage and participation in the art world (Guth 11). The chōnin bought, sold, and collected art, generating a popular market for artwork that became the driving force of ukiyo-e. Thus the birthplace of ukiyo-e was the market, where consumers indulged their tastes and found a sense of pleasure or escape on the painted page (Guth 12).
Ukiyo-e was, from its inception, an art form that held value both as an expression of elite luxury and as a popular commodity widely available in the markets of Edo. Despite its association with the merchant class, ukiyo-e was celebrated by the ruling classes as well, and the mass appeal of these artworks was underscored by the fact that anyone with money was allowed to buy and enjoy them. In this way, ukiyo-e prints and paintings were perhaps the first artworks to benefit from mass production and the commercialization of art, a point that merits specific emphasis because of how starkly it contrasts with the Western art historical canon, where the highbrow art of the rulers was often considered very different from the lowbrow crafts of the common folk. Thus ukiyo-e flourished as an exalted art form within Japan without any division separating it into the category of ‘high’ or ‘low’ art; instead, the art was allowed to occupy its own cultural space as both a fine art and a profitable market product.
Guth, Christine. Art of Edo Japan: the Artist and the City 1615 – 1868. H.N. Abrams, 1996.
Hokusai, Katsushika. “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/45434.
Naito, Masato. “Katsushika Hokusai”. Oxford Art Online, 2003, https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.tamu.edu/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T046003