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Night Rain at the Double-Shelf Stand, from the series Eight Parlor Views, Suzuki Harunobu c. 1766

When we look at Japanese art and Japanese art movements, can be confusing. Terminology and names can complicate the analysis and mess up the expectations. Since Japan opened up to the West in the 19th and early 20th century, various methodologies and principles were build, so that this extraordinary art style can be described and better understood. In fact, while it may look similar at times, Japanese art is consists of many different styles and periods, as it happens in the rest of the world. In this article we will discuss one of the most famous and important periods. The Edo Period and the Ukiyo-e Art Style.

The Edo period was a period of peace in Japan. It was administered by a conservative military government, the Tokugawa. The Tokugawa regime, separated society into four classes: warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants. In order to control the population in cities, the shoguns started building many theaters, brothels and teahouses. It was in places like this that the different classes commuted and money and style prevailed.

During this period, it was artisans (chōnin) who benefited the most. The expansions of cities and commerce, allowed them to gain economic power and status. As they became powerful, but remained socially confined, the chōnin turned their attention to districts dedicated mostly to the entertainment consumption. These districts played an important role to the development of Ukiyo art style. Moreover, the military class was the main patreon of artistic events and artists. The first ukiyo-zōshi novellas and ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints started to appear and became popular very fast.

Utagawa Kunisada – scene from the Chinese historical novel Romance of the three Kingdoms

In the beginning artists were painting mostly activities which took place outdoor and in beautiful landscapes. However, in later stages they shifted their attention to indoors activities and “houses of pleasure”. A very popular such house was at the Yoshiwara quarter of Edo. During that time, which we call the Kanbun era, actresses and the alluring courtesans of Yoshiwara were singled out for individual portrayal, often a scale larger than usual and garbed in opulent costumes. More and more artists started painting portraits of famous warriors and personalities on wood. The method became very popular in Japan.

Portrait from Kanbun era.

Once Japan opened its borders to the West, this kind of portraits became very popular among the tourists. The became famous by the name, “The Edo Pictures”. Moreover new technologies made possible the mass production of such portraits. During the nineteenth century the pictures of actresses and dancers lost popularity and artists like Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) brought the ukiyo-e art, back to landscape views.

After the death of Hiroshige, in 1858, important sociopolitical reforms and protests, brought down the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867. As a result Edo society and the ukiyo-e underwent a transformation which eventually swept it away and replaced it with a more modern, western influenced art.

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