I was getting to Ukiyo-e by way of its influence on van Gogh but then went too far and am now mired in Japanese history.

Edo is, of course, the former name of Tokyo, which is where the Tokugawa shogunate (1603 – 1867) established the last feudal government of Japan. The period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, and isolationist foreign policies.

Ukiyo-e was popular with the Edo period’s prosperous merchant class. They decorated their homes with Ukiyo-e prints in themes of beautiful women; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, (1) Katsushika Hokusai

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, (1) Katsushika Hokusai

The Tokugawa shogunate hostilely resisted U.S. and European attempts to establish trade relations with Japan. Then in 1852, Commodore Matthew Perry led an expedition with four warships into unprepared Japanese waters to forcibly open its ports.

Perry (and a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore) established diplomatic ties with Emperor Kōmei, who had a complicated political relationship with the shogunate. The Perry Expedition began the Meiji Restoration, a series of events which restored Imperial rule to Japan. The shogunate came to its official end on November 9, 1867.

All of this is to say that with the advent of social and technical modernization came the steep decline in the Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”),  a wood-print genre which had flourished during the Edo period. Printing was done by hand, so printers were able to achieve effects impractical with machines, such as the blending or gradation of colors on the printing block.

Umezawa in Sagami province, (31)  Katsushika Hokusai c. 1830

Umezawa in Sagami province, (31) Katsushika Hokusai c. 1830

Of course over a 250-year span there is the evolution of the genre and many artists to review but I’ll save for that for another day. The two masters of the 19th-century whose deaths, coupled with the Meiji Restoration, hastened the decline of Ukiyo-e were (Katsushika) Hokusai and (Utagawa) Hiroshige. 

Both prints shown on this post are from Hokusai’s series of prints, Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fugi. The Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the best-known works of Japanese art. Hirosage is best remembered for his series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō.


NOTE: Remember van Gogh? Yes. The influence of Japonism in Europe, particularly in France, began shortly after Commodore Perry forcefully opened trade with Japan.