Evolution of the Floating World

“An artist’s concern is to capture beauty wherever he finds it.”
― Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World

The early asethetic concerns of ukiyo-e followed from the much older Japanese tradition of yamato-e, a style of ink painting inspired by the artwork of the Song Dynasty in China. As the dominant art form in the court of the Heian era (794–1185), yamato-e embodied classical Japanese values, often depicting scenes from Japanese folklore or adapting famous narratives such as The Tale of Genji (Bell 19).

The shift of Japan’s capital from Kyoto to Edo triggered a reinvigoration of the arts, as the ensuing Edo Period in Japanese history saw unprecedented political and social stability.  Artists began to innovate upon existing traditions, and from the ethereal Chinese-inspired ink paintings of yamato-e gradually emerged the distinctly Japanese style of ukiyo-e (Bell 20). To that end, the early works ukiyo-e produced in the seventeenth century convey the changing sensibilities of a society experiencing a period of unprecedented stability and development.

As more people moved into the urban center of Edo and Kyoto, images of urbanization and the themes of city life became popular subject matter for artists, whose work often featured panoramic views of an idealized Edo (Guth 22). Yet, while the city itself was steadily becoming an ubiquitous aspect of life for an ever-growing population, many artists sought beauty beyond the physical realm. Dreamscapes and the idyllic moments of everyday life were immensely popular among chōnin buyers, who prized art for its ability to transcend reality and encapsulate moments of beauty, serenity, or erotic whimsy.

The desire among the chōnin for artwork that could transport them from the humdrum of daily life in Edo pushed artists to capture the most idyllic and sensuous experiences imaginable in their artwork, often by incorporating elements of poetry and sexuality (Guth 29). Nowhere was this blend of sex, art, and entertainment more pronounced than in Edo’s pleasure district, a place where fantasies were a matter of professional concern for specially trained courtesans known as geisha, who embodied the mystery and forbidden pleasures of the so-called “floating world,” the imagined place where art and pleasure originate and the term from which ukiyo-e takes it name (Guth 30).

Thus ukiyo-e  grew to encompass a rich array of themes and subject matter including the exploits of courtesans, poetry, kabuki theatre, city life, beautiful landscapes, folk tales, and historical narratives, all of which sought to stir the hearts and minds of viewers who sought personal enrichment, entertainment, and escape in the floating world (Marks 14).


Image: Utamaro, Kitagawa. Cherry-blossom Viewing at Goten-yama. Ukiyo-e.org, https://ukiyo-e.org/image/mfa/sc162591

Works Cited

Bell, David. “Explaining Ukiyo-e.” University of Utago, 2004.

Guth, Christine. Art of Edo Japan: the Artist and the City 1615 – 1868. H.N. Abrams, 1996.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Faber & Faber, 1986.

Marks, Andreas. Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers, and Masterworks 1680–1900. Tuttle Publishing, 2010.

Edo: the Birthplace of Ukiyo-e


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.


Works Cited

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


An Introduction to the Project


Pictured above is the famous image Under the Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print carved by Katsushika Hokusai circa 1832 (Naito). Nearly two hundred years after its creation, this artwork continues to surge with relevance as a pop cultural icon of traditional Japanese art. Yet Hokusai’s masterful prints were by no means created in a vacuum; he worked in an artistic tradition hundreds of years old, and his work reflects the rich history of technical and thematic innovations inherent to the ukiyo-e style.

The Japanese art form of ukiyo-e, often translated to mean “pictures of the floating world,” is a rich tradition of visual storytelling renowned for its bold designs, lavish paintings, and meticulously carved woodblock prints (Naitō). At the height of its popularity, the studios of ukiyo-e masters Andō Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai created images of enduring popularity that brought Japanese art to a global audience, forging a legacy that remains hugely influential to many modern Japanese artists (Naitō). For my final project, I will research the history and growth of ukiyo-e within Japan and the evolving tradition of ukiyo-e as practiced by Japanese artists in the twentieth century through today.

In this blog I will document my research, provide visual examples of relevant artwork, and record my personal synthesis of what I learn about the history and legacy of ukiyo-e.


Works Cited

Naito, Masato. “Katsushika Hokusai”. Oxford Art Online, 2003, https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.tamu.edu/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T046003