“An artist’s concern is to capture beauty wherever he finds it.”
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
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.