Ukiyo-e is a style of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings that were made between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Translated, the term ukiyo-e literally means “pictures of the floating world.” In Japan the floating world referred to the world of the geisha—its beautiful women, theatre, and leisure, but the genre of ukiyo-e also included paintings of landscapes and history tales as well as reflections of the infamous pleasure quarters of the geisha.
Ukiyo-e was popular in Japan for its depictions of theatre and courtesans which offered an escape, if only in view, from the ordinary life. New developments in printing techniques allowed the ukiyo-e works to be mass produced so that by the middle of the seventeenth century they were immensely popular. Because the prints were easy to reproduce, they became affordable for everyday people. Thus, their popularity continued to increase with time. At times some of the more sexually provocative prints would earn their artist a punishment, but essentially these scenes of nature’s pleasures or the pleasures of the teahouses and brothels remained in favor.
Scholars of Asian art typically divide ukiyo-e into two periods: Edo and Meiji. The Edo period lasted from the 1620s to 1867 and witnessed a relatively calm development of the art form. The Meiji period lasted from 1867 to roughly 1912 and faced more turbulence and change with the influx of Western influences once Japan had opened itself up to the West. Ukiyo-e first developed at a time when Edo, or Tokyo, was becoming increasingly metropolitan in terms of its cultural development.
There were several steps involved in making traditional ukiyo-e prints. First a master artist rendered a drawing in ink. Next, a trained assistant would create a tracing from the original drawing. The tracing would be given to craftsmen who would glue it to a block of wood and cut any traces of white from the paper leaving a reverse print on the wood. The wood block would then be inked for making copies. The coloration process revolved around the use of multiple blocks for impressing the proper color schemes to the copies by using a relief method.
Some of the best known ukiyo-e artists include Hishikawa Moronobu, Utamaro, Sharaku, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Kunichika, and Yoshitoshi. The ukiyo-e prints began to go out of fashion in the early twentieth century. Photography and other print forms began to take precedence. However, ukiyo-e art had a profound effect on many Western artists such as Edgar Degas and Claude Monet. The prints directly influenced the West’s growing taste for Japonisme objects of art. The floating world prints influenced not only the Impressionists, but also the Cubists and Post-Impressionists.