When Did The Japanese Woodblock Ukiyo-e Style Of Art Flourish?

Japanese Woodblock Ukiyo-e Style Of Art

One of the most interesting artistic styles in Japan’s history is the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints style. Even today, the Japanese woodblock prints are considered beautiful and relevant.

The Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock print art style flourished during the Edo Period from 1615-1868. The Shoguns ruled Japan’s social hierarchy. Merchants had money but no political power; they discovered they could be on an equal social footing through art and culture. The Ukiyo-e style of art helped give the merchants and others a voice in society.

To really understand why the Japanese Ukiyo-e style of woodblock art flourished during the time, it is good to understand what was happening during this era.

Woodblock print Japanese woman
Ichi by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1753-1806), a traditional Japanese ukiyo-e style illustration of a traditional Japanese woman standing and a book of moral education in the background. Original from Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Flourishing Period of Ukiyo-E Woodblock Art in Japan

Ukiyo-e art flourished in Japan during the Tokugawa or Edo Period from 1615-1868. The Tokugawa period was also known as the Edo period; this was the time in Japan’s history when the Shoguns ruled Japan. The Shogun rule of Japan was relatively peaceful, so art was able to flourish.

Here is some important historical background about the Ukiyo-e art period under the Edo rule from 1615 and 1868:

  • Social Hierarchy – The Japanese Shogun and other Edo rulers had a very highly developed social hierarchy. The wealthiest segment of the population, the merchants, was at the lower end of the social hierarchy. The elite upper classes included warriors, farmers, and artisans. To become a Shoguns, you needed to be born one; Shoguns were a hereditary military leader who the Japanese emperor appointed.
  • Merchants Had Wealth, But No Power – The merchants were one of the wealthiest segments of the Edo Japanese population, but they had no political power.
  • Merchants Turned to Art – As the merchants had no political power, they turned to art and culture as the area they could participate in on an equal basis with the elite upper classes.
  • Artistic Collaboration Formed – The merchants, artists, publishers, and townspeople formed a collaboration that gave the Ukiyo-e woodblock print art its unique voice. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints gave these groups a way to participate in society and obtain social status outside the politically sanctioned norms.

Initially, the Ukiyo-e art was looked upon as culturally and socially “low ” and even vulgar art; it was the art of the non-elite classes. But yet the Ukiyo-e art’s technical aspects and artistic attributes were truly remarkable. To read and understand the Ukiyo-e art and images demanded a high level of artistic and cultural literacy.

Even if Ukiyo-e art was considered “art of a low social standing,” it was anything but. The art had a sophistication in both using classical text and historical sources. In other words, to really understand the Ukiyo-e style of art, you needed some sophistication and education.

A unique thing about the Ukiyo-e woodblock print art is that it was art for the people. The Ukiyo-e art was both readily accessible, plentiful, and affordable for the masses.

Tne Ukiyo-e art remained relevant, fashionable, and even chic for this period of time. In other words, the art was all the rave in Japan during the Tokugawa or Edo Period from 1615-1868.

Image of japanese woman
Passing the Bamboo Grove (ca.(1868–1912) by Suzuki Harunobu. Original from The Cleveland Museum of Art. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Ukiyo-e Art – The Floating World of Japanese Woodblock Prints

Ukiyo-e art is also known as the Floating World of Ukiyo-e; the word Ukiyo-e means the floating world. The Japanese woodblock prints from this period continue to make the floating world of the Ukiyo-e art so popular.

Many of the Ukiyo-e art images were sold as single woodblock prints or as published books. The Ukiyo-e art was an art that also exploited the full potential of printmaking as art.

The Ukiyo-e art was so widely available, so many people could experience, see and touch the Ukiyo-e art first hand. This helped ensure the art flourished in Japan for over 250 years.

Like the collaborative efforts of the artists and merchants, the actual making of the Ukiyo-e art also required collaboration. The Ukiyo-e art team consisted of 4 highly skilled Ukiyo-e artisans who were:

  • The Woodblock Artist – The artist of the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints would draw out the artwork using ink and paper. This would be the actual design of what was going to be printed or carved onto the woodblock prints. The artist was significant to the overall concept and design of the woodblock print. The artist always signed the print. To find out more, you can read How Do You Identify A Japanese Artist’s Signature on Woodblock Prints? by clicking here.
  • The Woodblock Carvers – As the woodblock prints started to become sophisticated with more colors being used, the number of blocks for a woodblock that needed to be carved averaged from 10 to 16 different blocks. The woodblock carvers had to be highly skilled woodcarvers.
  • The Woodblock Printer – The Japanese woodblock printer was the person who would put the color pigments on each block and print out the woodblock design on handmade paper. Each woodblock color had to be printed by hand.
  • The Publisher – The publisher was the person who helped to market the prints and also coordinate all the efforts between the artist, carvers, and printers. Many of the woodblock prints also have a seal or stamp of the publisher.

When you look at these Japanese woodblock prints today from Ukiyo-e art you can see how highly skilled and sophisticated these Ukiyo-e artisans were. They were able to design, carve and print the Ukiyo-e art with extreme precision and detail. This truly makes these Japanese Ukiyo-e art woodblock prints so beautiful and unique.

No wonder so many of the Impressionist artists as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet were so taken by these Ukiyo-e art woodblock prints. They understood the great artistic skill the Ukiyo-e artisans had to be able to design, carve and print such amazing works of art.

Mimasu Gennosuke no Namiwa no Jirosaku by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1753-1806)
Mimasu Gennosuke no Namiwa no Jirosaku by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1753-1806), a traditional Japanese ukiyo-e style illustration of an actor Mimasu Gennosuke in the role of Namiwa Jirosaku. Digitally enhanced from our own original edition.

What is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Japanese Artist Hokusai (1790-1849)?

The Japanese artist Hokusai produced The Great Wave Off Kanagawa woodblock print as part of his series called Thirty-six Views. The Great Wave off Kanagawa features a huge wave, a small Mount Fuji in the background, and three boats getting caught in the large wave. This print has remained so popular that it inspired music, poetry, and even a present-day emoji.

You can find out more by reading our blog post The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Japanese Artist Hokusai (1790-1849) by clicking here.

What Is A Japanese Woodblock Print?

A Japanese woodblock print is, as the name implies, a print that is made by using carved woodblock and applying ink on the woodblocks to print a design on paper.   The Japanese woodblock artists use the woodblocks to print artistic prints and even books.  Artists have used the woodblock print technique in Japan for hundreds of years.  

You can learn more by reading What Is A Japanese Woodblock Print? by clicking here.

Anita Louise Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Louise Hummel. I am an artist and a blogger. I paint mainly oil paints. I love to paint women, animals (mainly dogs and cats), and abstracts. I use a lot of gold and silver leaf in my paintings. I also love to blog about anything to do with art, business, Procreate, and all the wonderful artists that inspire me.

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