Ukiyo-e reached what many historians regard as a golden period during the mid-1800s as refinements in the style and technique of print-making brought the medium to new artistic heights (Marks 15). During this time period, many masterful artists produced artwork of enduring beauty whose legacy resonates within and beyond the canon of Japanese art to this day. This post will focus on three such masterful artists and the studios in which they worked: Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige, and Katsushika Hokusai.
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) was an enormously successful uikyo-e artist known for his glamorous and alluring depictions of women (Jordan). His body of work typified the genre of bijin ōkubi-e or “large-headed pictures of beautiful women,” portraits and scenes of attractive women which typified the pleasure-district tableau (Jordan). While he was by no means the first or the only artist to capitalize on the female form in ukiyo-e, Utamaro was singular for the depth and sensitivity of his work which focused on both the erotic and non-erotic aspects of contemporary womanhood, often utilizing unusual angles to portray women in “almost snapshot-like moments of human action” (Jordan). Utamaro rendered his women in “a sensuous and stylish manner that reflected the aesthetic of iki, an Edo consciousness of beauty that emphasized coquetry, a fresh angle on conventional themes, lightness, suggestion and incompleteness,” crystalizing contemporary ideals of femininity and style, setting an aesthetic standard that influenced countless generations of artists and still resonates in mainstream Japanese culture today (Jordan).
Image: Utamaro, Kitagawa. Beauty in Front of Mirror. Ukiyo-e.org, https://ukiyo-e.org/image/artelino/18029g1.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) may very well be the single most famous ukiyo-e artist, due largely to the modern international fame of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a print from his Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji series. During his remarkably long and productive lifetime, Hokusai achieved great fame in his home city of Edo, operating a prolific studio that produced art prints, paintings, manga, pamphlets, and illustrated novels (Naitō). Like many masters of ukiyo-e, Hokusai was a teacher as well as a professional artist, training dozens of students over the course of his career and producing manuals and textbooks on the subject of drawing from life (Naitō). The artist himself drew extensively throughout his near-ninety years, and his work encompasses still-life, portraiture, action sequences, and erotica, though he is perhaps most known for his nature scenes. Hokusai’s nature pictures are characterized by his innovative and highly personal style of manipulating composition, perspective, and color to guide the viewer’s eye in a precise graphic path through the picture (Kita & Kobayashi). For example, in his landscapes, Hokusai frequently adjusted the placement, scale, and color of iconic landmarks to suit his personal vision of the scene. In this way, Hokusai deviated freely from reality to control the story of an image, instilling his work with intense narrative and visual power, setting standards in graphic design that endure to this day.
Towards the end of Hokusai’s life, the opening of Japan’s borders created a new market for the works of ukiyo-e masters in the form of Western artists, many of whom became avid collectors of ukiyo-e prints, admiring and absorbing the style to an extent that left an indelible mark in the canon of Western art in the nineteenth century through to the present day (Naitō). To that end, Hokusai is notable for his popularity among Western artists, with Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas, Manet, and Klimt among the known collectors of his work (Naitō).
Image: Hokusai, Katsushika. Fine Wind, Clear Morning. Ukiyo-e.org, https://ukiyo-e.org/image/artelino/45401g1.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) was born into a family of low-ranking samurai who valued the arts; at a young age, he established himself as an adept member of the Utagawa school, one of the largest and most successful schools of ukiyo-e (Naitō). Despite being nearly forty years his junior, Hiroshige quickly gained recognition as an artistic peer to Hokusai, then the most celebrated ukiyo-e artist alive (Kita & Kobayashi). Like Hokusai, Hiroshige expanded the scope of his work in the floating world beyond the traditional realm of the pleasure districts, focusing instead on capturing powerful scenes from nature. Much like Hokusai, Hiroshige’s work found eager consumers in the Western art world, with Vincent van Gogh painting copies of Hiroshige’s nature paintings (Naitō).
Hiroshige was aware of and perhaps cultivated comparisons between his and Hokusai’s work, even producing an homage to Hokusai’s print series The Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji by releasing his own series of the same title, a series in which Hiroshige re-imagined many of Hokusai’s celebrated landscapes (Kita & Kobayashi). Hiroshige expressed his view of the differences in their approach to visual storytelling in the inscriptions on his set of The Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. In this inscription, Hiroshige wrote of Hokusai: “Filled with power of his brush, his work focused upon making things interesting. For instance, he manipulated Fuji as he liked. My work differs. I simply reproduce sketches of what I had seen before my eyes” (Kita & Kobayashi). While Hiroshige shied away from Hokusai’s overt manipulation of reality, his approach was nonetheless groundbreaking for its innovations in atmospheric rendering techniques, which blended stylization with accurate representational drawing.
Image: Hiroshige, Utagawa. Shôno: Driving Rain. Ukiyo-e.org, https://ukiyo-e.org/image/mfa/sc207814
Jordan, Brenda G. “Kitagawa Utamaro.” Oxford Art Online, 2003. http://www.oxfordartonline.com.ezproxy.library.tamu.edu/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000046743?rskey=elKJUv&result=2
Kita, Sandy, & Takako, Kobayashi “The Bohemian vs. the Bureaucrat: Hokusai and Hiroshige” CarnegieMuseums.org, 1996, https://carnegiemuseums.org/magazine-archive/1996/marapr/hokusai.htm.
Marks, Andreas. Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers, and Masterworks 1680–1900. Tuttle Publishing, 2010.
Naitō, Masato. “Katsushika Hokusai”. Oxford Art Online, 2003, https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.tamu.edu/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T046003
Naitō, Masato. “Andō Hiroshige”. Oxford Art Online, 2003, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.ezproxy.library.tamu.edu/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000002710.