Floating World of Ukiyo-e - Shadows, Dreams, and Substance

Cutout from an early Ukiyo-e of a Cortesan

The earliest Ukiyo-e prints date from about 1600. These early works were monochromatic, with the design laid out in bold black lines. Beginning in the seventeenth century, artists began to add color by hand, including red, blue, yellow, and orange. They also began to experiment with light-catching textures. With the advent of multicolor printing around the mid-eighteenth century, single prints were built up in layers of aligned blocks, each carrying different colors and pieces of design. Erotic works and images of actors and beautiful women were common subjects in early Ukiyo-e. Also popular were themes from Japanese myth, legend, literature, and history.

Ukiyo-e prints by early masters working from about 1600 to 1740 were issued in limited numbers and are extremely rare today. The Library of Congress collection contains many examples of these so-called "primitives" by early Ukiyo-e masters of the seventeenth century.

Frontispiece to a Set of Erotic Prints

Known from examples in the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirakawa Museum of Art in Yokohama, and many other collections, this famous print is the frontispiece of a set of twelve erotic prints. This print bears the signature and seal of Torii Kiyonobu I (ca. 1664-1729). Kiyonobu was the founder of the Torii school of artists, a defining force in the development of Ukiyo-e during the first half of the eighteenth century.

Torii Kiyonobu I. Courtesan painting a screen, ca. 1711. Published by Takeda Chôemon of Dobôchô, Yokohama. Woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (1). (LC-USZC4-8406)

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Kume the Immortal Spies on a Beauty

This sumizuri-e, or monochrome print, is unsigned but the style resembles that of the early master Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694) and his school. The young woman doing laundry by the river displays the broad cheeks and long jaw associated with Moronobu, and the print as a whole exhibits the combination of thin and thick wavy calligraphic lines typical of Moronobu. The subject of the print is Kume the Immortal, a renowned recluse who mastered the power to travel through the air at will. The sight of a young woman baring her legs while washing clothes caused Kume to lose his concentration and fall from the sky.

Anonymous. Kume spies on a girl, ca. 1688-1704. Monochrome woodblock print, 10 1/2 in. x 15 1/8 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (2). (LC-USZC4-8536)

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Early Ukiyo-e by an Anonymous Artist

Black-and-white compositions like this one are known as sumizuri-e because they were rubbed (suri) in ink (sumi) only. This image depicts a woman identified as Echizen writing poetry while the other woman, Kotanko, grooms the hair of a man seated before a mirror. These figures are identical in pose to figures from an earlier work, Courtesans in Opposing Mirrors, signed by Okumura Gempachi Masanobu (ca. 1686-1764). Masanobu's work was based on an image created by Torii Kiyonobu I (ca. 1664-1729), dated 1700.

Anonymous. Hairdressing, early eighteenth century. Woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (3). (LC-USZC4-8407)

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Rare Book Illustration

In this narrative, the itinerant monk Shintoku gives the power of speech to a mute girl. On the right leaf, the girl who is seated at center raises her hand and asks, "Papa, have you come back home?" The girl's mother rises up on both knees and declares, "Hallelujah, hallelujah!" The father, dressed in the striped kimono, proclaims, "I'm so glad, my daughter has spoken!" Shintoku, in black clerical attire, explains, "It is due to the grace of the deity at Kasuga." The Library of Congress copy of this literary work is the only one known to exist.

Anonymous. Shintoku's Souvenirs from Nara. (Shintoku Nara miyage). Detail 1. Detail 2. Kyôto: Nakajima Matabei, 1713. Woodblock-printed book, 9 1/2 in. x 6 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (4). (LC-USZC4-8653 [full];LC-USZC4-8654, LC-USZC4-8652 [detail])

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Ninth-Century Scholar and Deity

This print by Okumura Masanobu (ca. 1686-1764) depicts a nobleman, Sugawara Michizane (845-903), who, according to Japanese legend, became the god Kitano Tenjin. In a deified form, his spirit is said to have flown to China to learn Zen, paying for his lessons with a sprig of flowering plum. Such portraits of Michizane--who became the patron deity of scholarship and learning--developed among fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Japanese ink painters and shrines were built throughout Japan in his honor.

Okumura Masanobu. Kitano Tenjin, pre-1764. Woodblock print with hand-coloring, hosoban, 13 in. x 5 5/8 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (5). (LC-USZC4-8529)

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Shôki: The Chinese Demon Queller

This print by Okumura Masanobu (ca. 1686-1764) portrays Shôki, and is one of a number of versions depicting the famous Chinese queller of demons in a walking pose. The artistic style of this print is reminiscent of earlypainting techniques, as the block-printed lines vary in thickness like the calligraphic brush strokes of ink painters.

Okumura Masanobu. Shôki Striding, pre-1764. Woodblock print with hand-coloring, hashira-e, 28 1/4 in. x 4 3/4 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (6). (LC-USZC4-8532)

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Shôki with Beauty

This early hand-colored print by Nishimura Shigenobu (fl. 1730s-1740s) is a typical example of parody. Shôki, the fierce demon queller, has his hand around the shoulder of a young woman who has, apparently, tamed him. These prints bear the red collector/dealer seals of Wakai Kanesaburô (1834-1908) and Hayashi Tadamasa (1853-1907), who were among the most prolific dealers of Ukiyo-e. Both seals are seen here in the lower left corner--Hayashi's is the small circular seal and Wakai's is oval.

Nishimura Shigenobu. Shôki and girl, ca. 1720s. Woodblock print with hand-coloring and lacquer (urushi), hosoban, 13 in. x 5 5/8 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (7). (LC-USZC4-8410)

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Kabuki Actors: Sôjûrô and Takenojô

Actors can often be identified in Ukiyo-e prints by the personal crests on their costumes. For example, in this print by Nishimura Shigenaga (1697-1756) the kneeling actor wears an orange blossom crest, identifying him as Ichimura Takenojô. Takenojô was the nephew of a proprietor of a prominent kabuki theater in Edo. He eventually gave up acting and became a Buddhist priest. Above him stands Sawamura Sojurô, identified by the "i" crest. Since actor's crests and names were handed down, they are not always a certain means of identification.

Nishimura Shigenaga. Sawamura Sôjûrô I and Ichimura Takenojô dancing with a tsuzumi drum, pre-1756. Woodblock print with hand-coloring, lacquer (urushi), and powdered metal, hosoban, 13 in. x 5 5/8 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (8). (LC-USZC4-8411)

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Kabuki Actors: Sôjûrô and Tomigorô

This print by Okumura Toshinobu (fl. 1717-1750) depicts two actors--Sawamura Sôjûrô I (1685-1756) and Yamatogawa Tomigorô playing the roles of a samurai and his page. Sôjûrô I was the first in a line of nine generations of famed actors bearing the Sôjûrô name. In a technique used by many Ukiyo-e artists, ground metal has been applied to reflect light in selected areas, such as the lamp in the upper left section of the image.

Okumura Toshinobu. Sawamura Sôjûrô I and Yamatogawa Tomigorô in the roles of samurai, Ôtomo Hidaemon, and his page, Yoemon, ca. 1718-1720. Woodblock print with hand-coloring, lacquer (urushi) and powdered metal, hosoban, 13 in. x 5 5/8 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (9). (LC-USZC4-8412)

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Stylish Courtesan

This print by Torii Kiyomasu (fl. late 1690s-early 1720s) depicts a woman trampling what are most likely love letters, scattered at her feet. The woman is a courtesan, identified by the fact that her obi sash is tied in front, and probably also by the background willows, which were planted along the banks of the pleasure quarters. The double crests of butterfly and maple leaf on the sleeve of her kimono depict a fad of the late-seventeenth century in which lovers would proclaim their love for one another by overlapping their family crests. Another late-seventeenth-century fad is the long tobacco pipe the woman is holding in her hand, which were smoked by men and women alike.

Torii Kiyomasu (fl. late 1690s-early 1720s). Three Pairs of Stylish Wise People: Shohei on the Right (Fûryû kenjin sanpukutsui: migi Shohei), late seventeenth century. Woodblock print with hand-coloring, one panel from a triptych, hosoban, 13 in. x 5 5/8 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (10). (LC-USZC4-8413)

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Referencing a Classic Pose

The actor portrayed here is from the famous Ichikawa line of actors. The plaque in the background of the print bears the name of the well-known Edo temple Sensôji in Asakusa. The print, presumably by Torii Kiyomasu II (fl. 1720s-early 1760s), shows Ichikawa Ebizô on stage, holding a large gun. The actor's stance is reminiscent of that of the "Thunder Gods" seen in Yamato-e--a courtly, classical style of painting of the seventeenth-century.

Torii Kiyomasu II. Ichikawa Ebizô on Stage (Ichikawa Ebizô aitsutome môshi sôrô), pre-1765. Woodblock print with hand-coloring, hosoban, 13 in. x 5 5/8 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (11). (LC-USZC4-8528)

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Heightened Realism

Katsukawa Shunkô (1743-1812) and his teacher Katsukawa Shunshô (1726-1793) are said to have transformed the caricature-like prints of actors of the early Torii masters into true portraits. This actor, seen in a warrior-like pose--reminiscent of the aragoto (rough) style of Edo kabuki actors--wears the multiple box (nested rice measures) crest of the Ichikawa family. This print shows the use of printed color in a relatively simple palette, typical of relatively early nishiki-e, or brocade, prints.

Katsukawa Shunkô. Actor with sword, pre-1788. Color woodblock print, hosoban, 13 in. x 5 5/8 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (12). (LC-USZC4-8405)

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A Kanô School Painting Manual

This work was compiled by the important Kanô school artist, Ôoka Shunboku (1680-1763). Shunboku, who worked in the Kamigata (Kyoto-Osaka) region, was one of the first artists to expand painting techniques to a broader audience through publishing monochromatic block-printed books, painting manuals, and other handbooks. This image, a standard portrait of the Zen Buddist monk, Ikkyû, includes directions for which colors to apply. The image of crab among the reeds likewise comes with instructions for drawing the image, in a "natural" stroke order.

Ôoka Shunboku, Graceful Art, Sharp Brush (Gahin hippô); also known by the title, Notable Chinese and Japanese Paintings: An Illustrated Handbook (Wakan meihitsu: Ehon tekagami). Image 1. Image 2. Osaka: Terada Yoemon, et al., 1720. Woodblock-printed book, 9 1/2 in. x 6 1/2 in. Vol. 3. Asian Division, Library of Congress (103)

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