Pictures of the Floating World

We have many Japanese hanging scrolls and woodblock prints in the shop now, what are called Ukiyo-e or "pictures of the floating world." In the Edo period (1615-1868) the floating world referred to Pleasure Quarters, areas of the city devoted to brothels, tea houses, and theaters. These were places of pleasure and leisure activities where social classes mixed, but they were particularly popular with a rising merchant class.

The subject matter of these prints are traditionally Kabuki Actors and Courtesans, though in the 19th century landscapes and scenes of travel became popular.

The printing of texts and monochromatic images began in Japan as early as the 8th century, but the tradition of Japanese woodblock printing really begins in the 18th century with the development of techniques for making multicolored prints through the use of multiple wood blocks. A separate block is carved for each color.

There are three stages to the making of a print and these were often performed by separate people: the designer, the carver, and the printer. Woodblock printing lends itself to fields of bold color but the printer could also achieve gradations of color by painting on the block; look for example at the blue and red in the sky in this print:

With the relaxation of protectionist Japanese trade and cultural policies at the end of the Edo period, Japanese prints, as well as other Japanese items, began to appear in dealer's shops in Europe and caused a fashion craze called "Japonisme." European and American artists such as Mary Cassatt, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, and Vincent Van Gogh (to name only a handful) were significantly influenced by Ukiyo-e prints.