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

Cut out of full image of an Actor,  Utagawa Kunisada, artistThe licensed pleasure quarter of Edo, known as Yoshiwara, famed for its government-sanctioned brothels, kabuki theater, fashionable restaurants, and street entertainment, was a principal inspiration for many Ukiyo-e artists. It was here -- in this "floating world" of pleasure and entertainment -- that the confines of social class could be pushed aside. Various forms of entertainment, particularly kabuki theater and the pleasure quarters, lured monied patrons who were eager in turn to acquire the vivid images of celebrated actors and exquisite courtesans created by Ukiyo-e artists.

Over time, travel became a popular form of leisure and the pleasures of the natural environment, interesting landmarks, and the adventures encountered on a journey became a popular inspiration for Ukiyo-e landscape prints and books.


Bijin-ga, or images of beauties, celebrate both real and idealized women. At first the images featured high-ranking courtesans but soon included historic figures, geisha (performers of music and dance), lower-ranked courtesans, fictional characters, notable townswomen, and everyday women. The women are portrayed in different activities and occupations, in public and private settings--doing chores, flirting, performing, writing--always surrounded by an aura of captivating beauty.

Images of ideal beauty provided a rich framework for Ukiyo-e artists, who often depicted women in the most up-to-date fashions and hairstyles. Fads in feminine beauty are also seen in prints of tall statuesque women, robust women of character, petite waif-like ingenues, mature full-bodied beauties, and other types.

Willowy Beauties

These images, possibly by Isoda Koryûsai (fl. mid-1760s to 1780s), were intended for display on support pillars in buildings. In one of the images, a woman is shown engrossed in reading a scroll, perhaps a love letter, while a young man emerges from behind a painted screen and reads over her shoulder. The other print shows two beauties, one holding sumptuous fabric, and the other a long-stemmed pipe that extends beyond the border of the image.

Attributed to Isoda Koryûsai. Untitled, pre-1789. Image 1. Image 2. Color woodblock prints, hashira-e, 28 1/4 in. x 4 3/4 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (13, 14). (LC-USZC4-8533, LC-USZC4-8534)

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Delicate Beauty

This print by Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820) is in the style of Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770) and shows the small dainty figures associated with his artwork. Harunobu is credited with developing the method of multicolor printing seen here, known as nishiki-e or brocade prints.

Kitao Shigemasa. Girl with Insect Cage and Girl Reading a Letter, pre-1820. Color woodblock print, chûban, 10 in. x 7 1/2 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (15). (LC-USZC4-8408)

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Beauties Engaged in Various Occupations, Preserved in Woodblock

This late nineteenth-century woodblock features women attired in dress appropriate for their various occupations. Images here include the servant girl with the umbrella (fourth row) and the girl at writing practice (second row). Prints made from a block such as this may have been pasted to cardboard, cut into small cards, and placed as prizes in bags of sweets. The block itself, a single cut of Japanese wild cherry, has a hardwood surface that can withstand hundreds of impressions.

Issai. Assembled Beauties, New Impression (Shinpan bijo-zukushi). Tokyo: Izutsuya, ca.1870. Wild cherry woodblock, 13 in. x 6 in. x 1 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (16). (LC-USZC4-8639)

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The "Beautiful People" of Victorian Japan

True Beauties, illustrated by Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), contains delicately hued portraits of a host of "modern" Japanese women who thrived in the new and changing world three decades into the Meiji era (1868-1912). Clad in a kimono bearing her family crest, the young woman depicted here combines East and West in an exciting blend of fashions. From her blue-tinted spectacles to her gold ring, her accessories announce that she is a woman of means and expansive taste. Chikanobu, his carver, and his printer all worked to provide a rich palate of tones to mesmerize the viewer more than a century later.

Toyohara Chikanobu. True Beauties (Shin bijin). Tokyo: Matsumoto Heikichi, 1898. Woodblock-printed book, 14 in. x 9 1/2 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (17). (LC-USZC4-8743)

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Western Photographic Portrait

Although not an Ukiyo-e image, this portrait is evocative of Ukiyo-e bijin-ga, or pictures of beautiful women. Western photographers, working during the nineteenth century in the Japanese city of Yokohama, often drew inspiration from conventions, subjects, and compositions found in Ukiyo-e images--by that time well known to Western audiences. Among the most successful of these photographers were Baron von Raimund Stillfried-Rathenitz and his predecessor, Felice Beato.

Baron von Raimund Stillfried-Rathenitz and H. Andersen. Views and Costumes of Japan by Stillfried & Andersen. Yokohama: ca. 1877. Silver albumen photograph with hand-applied watercolor, 14 7/8 in. x 11 5/8 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (18). (LC-USZC4-14303)

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Blending Genres: Beauty in Landscape

Here Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) uses Utagawa Hiroshige's famous print of the village of Kanbara from the series The Fifty-three Stages of the Tôkaidô as a backdrop for an enigmatic portrait of a beauty riding a bull. The print reveals the extent to which the artists of Ukiyo-e would borrow images from one another as the traditions of this school developed. Not only did Kunisada use Hiroshige's landscapes in this series, but he also made a second set of half-length portraits of actors paired against these same landscapes.

Utagawa Kunisada. "Picture of Kanbara" from The Fifty-three Stages of the Tôkaidô (Tôkaidô gojûsan sugi no uchi: Kanbara zu), ca. 1853. Color woodblock print, chûban, 10 in. x 7 1/2 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (19). (LC-USZC4-8431)

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Beauties of the Yoshiwara

These high-ranking courtesans from Edo's famous pleasure district, Yoshiwara, are identified on each print by their names, the houses in which they worked, and the locations of the houses. Gorgeously attired from their elaborately coiffed hair to their lofty platform shoes, these women create a dramatic impression. There were several parallels between kabuki actors and high-ranking courtesans during the Edo Period, including the use of hereditary names that could carry the caché of celebrity down through generations.

Artist unidentified. New Yoshiwara (Shin-Yoshiwara). Shigeoka from Okamotoya house on Kyô Street; Sugatano from Ebiya house on Kyô Street; Hanamurasaki from Tamaya house on Edo Street (left to right). Late nineteenth century. Color woodblock print, ôban triptych, 15 in. x 10 in. each. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (104). (LC-USZC4-8464, 8465, 8466)

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Ninth-Century Poet

This print by Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867) depicts Ono no Komachi (ca. ninth century), a celebrated poet, famed also for her spectacular beauty and its decline in her old age. The translated inscription on this print reads:

Even if we say life is limited,
The accumulating years would
not matter
If one's appearance did not change.

Kikugawa Eizan. The Modern Seven Komachi (Fûryû shichi Komachi), pre-1867. Color woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (56). (LC-USZC4-8500)

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Catching Fireflies

Andô Hiroshige (1797-1858) is world renowned for his masterpieces of graphic art. The album displayed here provides a glimpse of a private side of the artist's oeuvre not apparent in his published prints. Here a young woman stands on a riverbank and waves an uchiwa fan to catch fireflies. She will keep them in the netted cage on the ground to her left and enjoy their charms at home. Hiroshige employs a moist brush together with a light wash and accents in red and yellow to yield an effective scene, both real and dreamlike in its mood.

Andô Hiroshige. The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige (Hiroshige gajô), ca. 1840. Album of hand-drawn sketches in two vols., 10 in. x 6 1/4 in. Ink and pigment on paper. Asian Division, Library of Congress (112). (LC-USZC4-8753)

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Actor prints, considered ephemera at the time, were almost always created to coincide with performances of a particular kabuki play. The prints were inexpensive--costing about the same as a bowl of noodles--and were intended to be sold immediately as souvenirs and enjoyed briefly. While exploiting the public fascination with kabuki, Ukiyo-e artists in turn served to promote the actors, who were viewed as cultural icons, some with a "superstar" status. In some instances artists were allowed to attend dress rehearsals in order to create the most up-to-date portrait of an actor in the latest play.

Theatrical prints often focus on actors in a climactic scene in a play--during a moment of epiphany or extreme emotional turmoil. The actors are shown in a frozen position, or mie, a dramatic pose often accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions, essential to kabuki theater tradition.

Rare Actor Print

This print is one of only seven known works, all portraits of actors, by Kabukidô Enkyô (1749-1803), the sole follower of the enigmatic Tôshûsai Sharaku (fl. 1794-1795). Nothing was known of Enkyô until 1926, when it was discovered that he also used the name "Nakamura Jûsuke II"; under this name he was known as an author and kabuki actor. It is likely that the subject here is Nakayama Tomisaburô, a male actor who played female roles, as identified by an identical print by Enkyô in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Kabukidô Enkyô. Portrait of Nakayama Tomisaburô, ca. 1800. Color woodblock print, 11 1/4 in. x 9 1/4 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (20). (LC-USZC4-8439)

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Theatrical Scene

This triptych by Utagawa Kunisadai (1786-1865) depicts a scene from a kabuki play in which six actors appear--three are dressed as a tiger, an elephant, and a lion. The figures are identified as Hachiman Tarô Yoshiie (left, with parasol), Abe no Sadatô (center, holding tiger), and Sadatô's wife, Sodehagi, (right, holding long letter).

Utagawa Kunisada. Night scene lit by a lantern, ca. 1847-1852. Hachiman Tarô Yoshiie; Abe no Sadatô; Sadatô's wife, Sodehagi. Color woodblock print, ôban triptych, 15 in. x 10 in. each. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (21). (LC-USZC4-8444, LC-USZC4-8445, LC-USZC4-8446)

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Special Effects in Woodblock Prints

This book of portraits by Hanagasa Bunkyô (1785-1861) and Ryûsai Shigeharu (1803-1853) depicts actors from Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Shown here, an actor sits in his dressing room, pipe in hand, collecting his thoughts before his performance. On the left, the actor is dressed to play an elderly aristocratic woman. This print is a fine example of printing technology and shows great attention to detail. The surface of a mirror gleams with flecks of mica, while the luxurious brocade robe on the right achieves three dimensionality through the use of embossing on the paper.

Hanagasa Bunkyô. The Three Kingdoms of Actors' Customs (Yakusha fûzoku sangokushi). Image 1. Image 2. Ryûsai Shigeharu, illustator. Osaka: Kawachiya Tasuke, 1831. Woodblock-printed book, 9 in. x 5 3/4 in. Vol. 1 of 3. Asian Division, Library of Congress (22). (LC-USZC4-8715, LC-USZC4-8716)

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The Persistence of Convention

This group of prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) illustrates how certain conventions and motifs were sometimes repeated. The two multi-panel prints in particular are strikingly similar in composition. Each of these works shows a figure with a sword wearing an ankle-length costume fringed with tassels. The figures stand in almost identical poses in both Kuniyoshi's triptych and Kunisada's four-part work. The single sheet, once owned by Oliver Wendell Holmes, shows the figure in the same style of costume, though in a different pose. The Holmes print, which shows Danjûrô VIII, has a label indicating that it is a scene from the play Tale of the Monstrous Rat of the Priest Raigô (Raigô ajari kaisoden), an adaptation of Kyokutei Bakin's (1767-1848) famous 1808 novel of the same title.

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Sawamura Sanjûrô III

This print is from the series Forms of Actors on Stage (Yakusha Butai no Sugata-e) by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825). Each actor in this series is shown full length in a simple, distinctive pose that captures a sense of immediacy. The print on view shows Sawamura Sanjûrô III (1753-1801), a leading actor at the Nakamura theater in Edo, famous for his large, fat ear lobes and his great round eyes. Toyokuni carefully portrayed these features of the actor in this print.

Utagawa Toyokuni. Kinokuni yaSawamura Sanjûrô III as Ôboshi Yuranosuke from the series Forms of Actors on Stage (Yakusha Butai no Sugata-e), ca. 1815-1842. Color woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (26). (LC-USZC4-8437)

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Portraits of Actors in Various Roles

This scroll-mounted group of twenty actor prints, many of which are diptychs, includes numerous images of the same actors. Pictured most often is Nakamura Shikan IV (1831-1899), who appears first at the far right. He is shown emerging from a background image amid floating chess game pieces emblazoned with such characters as "performance" and "gold." He sticks his tongue out in a gesture associated with a humorous dance performed at felicitous occasions such as the start of the new theatrical season. Also shown is Sawamura Tanosuke III (1845-1878), a leading male actor famed for playing female roles. Other actors pictured include Ôtani Tomoemon V (1833-1873), Ichimura Uzaemon XIII (1844-1903), and Ichikawa Kuzô III (1836-1911)

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864), Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), and Utagawa Kuniaki (1835-1888) Image 1. Half-length Portrait Brocade Prints (Nishiki-e hanshin ga), ca. 1860-1866. All 20 images, from left to right: Image 1. Image 2. Image 3. Image 4. Image 5. Image 6. Image 7. Image 8. Image 9. Image 10. Image 11. Image 12. Image 13. Image 14. Image 15. Image 16. Image 17. Image 18. Image 19. Image 20. Twenty scroll-mounted color woodblock prints, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. each. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (27). (LC-USZC4-8659 through LC-USZC4-8671)

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An Album of Toyokuni Actor Portraits

Portrait series, such as this excellent example of thirty-three Edo actors, illustrated by Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825), provided coveted information to fans about actors' roles, coiffures, makeup, and personal matters. Shown here are (right) Onoe Shôsuke (1744-1815) and (left) Bandô Yasosuke I (1759-1814). Books of portraits of popular kabuki actors were in as great demand as single-sheet prints.

Asakusa no Ichihito. A Mirror of Actors' Likenesses (Yakusha nigao kagami). Utagawa Toyokuni I, illustrator. Image 1. Image 2. Image 3. Image 4. Edo: Yamadaya Sanshirô, 1804. Woodblock-printed book, 10 1/4 in. x 7 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (117)

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Travel blossomed in Edo society. Driven by an edict requiring that all daimyo (feudal lords with domains awarded by the shogun) maintain residences in Edo and alternate their time between the administrative center and their home domains, the shogunate developed five highways branching outward from Edo. Regular traffic to and from Edo was stimulated by these major thoroughfares--such as the Tôkaidô Highway running three hundred-odd miles along the coast between Edo and Kyoto. The highways were regularly traveled by daimyo processions, as well as ordinary people on pilgrimages, merchants, entertainers, and other sightseers and travelers.

Ukiyo-e artists celebrated their surroundings in their artwork and, fueled in part by the Edo passion for travel, landscape art became a popular genre in the nineteenth century. Artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai produced numerous prints and books featuring beautiful and famous places; architecture, temples, and monuments; and natural phenomena. Natural beauty was also expressed in microcosm through the detailed depiction of birds, plants, shells, and insects.

An Album of Masterful Sketches

Andô Hiroshige (1797-1858), who is world renowned for his masterpieces of graphic art, including the Fifty-Three Stages of the Tôkaido and One Hundred Views of Famous Places of Edo, was also a gifted sketch artist. This two-volume album provides an intimate look into Hiroshige's private life. Shown here is Arashiyama, or "Storm Mountain," a scenic place in Kyôto, famous for cherry blossoms in spring, and the moon and maple leaves in autumn.

Andô Hiroshige. The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige (Hiroshige gajô), early 1840s. Album of hand-drawn sketches, 10 in. x 6 1/4 in. Two volumes. Asian Division, Library of Congress (28). (LC-USZC4-8542)

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Distant View of Kinryûzan Temple at Asakusa

Although both worked fluently in a wide range of styles and subject matter, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) brought landscape imagery in Ukiyo-e to a pinnacle. This scene by Hiroshige comes from a series of pictures of famous places. Hiroshige captures the viewer's eye by radically cropping the boat and its passenger, and placing them in the extreme foreground. In the distance is the Azuma Bridge, built in 1774, stretching in front of Mount Fuji. To the right stands a five-story pagoda with the golden hall of the Kinryûzan Temple, more commonly known as Sensô-ji or the Asakusa Temple.

Utagawa Hiroshige. "Distant View of Kinryûsan from Azuma Bridge" (Azumabashi kinryûsan enbô) from the series A Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei), 1856. Color woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (29). (LC-USZC4-8423)

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The Great Bridge at Senju

This view by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) shows the great bridge of Senju crossing the Arakawa River. The Senju Bridge was built in 1594 and stood for nearly 300 years until it was washed away in the great flood of 1885. Mount Bukô (4,383 feet) is also depicted. The superb printing of the wood grain and the crisp detail attests that this image is an early edition. Notably, the wood grain creates a rhythmic pattern in the water, adding a rich texture to its surface.

Utagawa Hiroshige. "Great Bridge at Senju" (Senju no ôhashi) from the series A Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei), 1856. Color woodblock, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (30). (LC-USZC4-8425)

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Night Rain on Karasaki Pine

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was the first Ukiyo-e printmaker to make landscape a primary concern. This example is from his Eight Views of Ômi series, which depicts beautiful scenes of Lake Biwa in Ômi Province in Japan. The subject represents a Japanese transmutation of an old Chinese theme and depicts the Karasaki pine on a rainy night, using a wide and flat space based on the traditional perspective of Chinese-style painting. The Eight Views of Ômi became a popular theme in Ukiyo-e--there was even an erotic version of Eight Views of Ômi.

Katsushika Hokusai. "Night Rain on Karasaki Pine" (Karasaki no yoru no ame) from the series Eight Views of Ômi (Ômi hakkei), ca. 1800-1802. Color woodblock, chûban, 10 in. x 7 1/2 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (31). (LC-USZC4-8530)

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The Stream of Asazawa

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) produced several privately commissioned prints after 1828, including this view of Mount Fuji from the hot springs at Hakone. The translated poem reads:

In the spring wind, there is the scent of the laughing plum. The soft snow melts to be the waters of the Asazawa.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The Stream of Asazawa in Spring, 1828. Color woodblock print, chûban, 10 in. x 7 1/2 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (32). (LC-USZC4-8426)

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Idyllic Life in the Countryside

The renowned Kyoto artist of the Kishi and Shijô Schools, Kawamura Bunpô (1779-1821) demonstrates his familiarity with Chinese motifs in his painting manuals, which appeared in print between 1807 and 1814. In this landscape a bent elderly woman trudges up a mountain path toward her home. Even without an awareness of the Chinese poem which inspired this image, the stillness, broken only by the rushing waters of the mountain stream, as well as the implied loneliness, create a moving tribute.

Kawamura Bunpô. Bunpô Painting Manual: Second Series (Bunpôgafu ni-hen). Image 1. Image 2. Osaka: Kawachiya Kihei; Kyoto: Yoshida Shinbei, 1811. Woodblock-printed book, 10 1/4 in. x 6 5/8 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (33). (LC-USZC4-8678, LC-USZC4-8679)

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Perspective View of a Post Station

This drawing, executed with a dry brush, or perhaps charcoal, shows the main street of the town of Ômi-hachiman, along the Nakasendô Highway just east of Lake Biwa. The artist employed a vanishing point and horizon in the European manner, as well as a low perspective, indicating training in the Shijô school, which drew from both European and Chinese teachings. From the thick-walled warehouse in the foreground to the inns lining the road ready to feed, entertain, and provide rest for travelers, the sketch compels the viewer to explore the town further.

Anonymous. Sketches from Life (Shasei-jô), ca. 1840. Image 1. Image 2. Album of hand-drawn sketches, 9 1/4 in. x 5 3/4 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (34). (LC-USZC4-8735)

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Fields of Flowers

One of the most delicate collections of flowering plants ever printed is Fields of Musashi. This album reveals a collection of twelve prints of flora from the Musashi Plain, to the immediate west of Tokyo. Shown on the left is a delicate rendering of egrets perched on willow branches. The birds are drawn usinggofun pigment, which is made from ground shells; the willow leaves are done using a silver, mica-based ink. On the right is an autumn scene of the moon shining over tufts of pampas grass. Here the shimmering moon is rendered using mica, giving the image a luminous appearance.

Tanaka Ôseki (n.d.), illustator. Fields of Musashi(Musashino). Tokyo: Kokkadô, 1894. Image 1. Image 2. Album of woodblock prints, single sheets mounted, 12 in. x 9 7/8 in. Asian Division, Library of Congress (105). (LC-USZC4-8745)

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