From the Industrial Revolution to World War I, C. 1850–1914

Japanese Art

What is ukiyo-e painting?

In Japanese, ukiyo-e literally means, “pictures of the floating world.” This Buddhist phrase is used to describe a style of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings that developed during the Edo Period (1603–1868) and continued on through the twentieth century. Woodblock prints from the Edo Period were a major influence on Impressionist painters in France, and were notable for their use of color, the importance of landscape, and the focus on bourgeois life through images of dancing, theaters, geishas, and urban street scenes. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints are delicately colored with natural dyes and feature thinly outlined forms. They were affordable and ex tremely popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and were sold by shopkeepers and street vendors in big cities such as Tokyo (known as Edo during the eighteenth century). Three separate artists usually made woodblock prints: a painter, a carver, and a printer. The painter would first paint the original image. Then, a block of wood, often made of cherry, was carved with the outline of the image to be printed, covered in black ink, and then pressed to fine paper. A separate block was carved for each additional color used. This meant that multiple blocks were required for a single print, sometimes as many as twenty separate blocks! Ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicted the secular, material world, though artists subtly emphasized the Buddhist concept of the transient nature of physical existence.


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