March 2020

Important Japanese Prints 1830–1860

March 14–20, 2020
17 East 76th Street, 3rd Floor,
New York 10021
11:00 AM to 5:00 PM; Sunday noon to 5PM

In 1830, ukiyo-e artists were organized into two main schools, the Katsushika and the Utagawa, but despite a veritable flood of prints over the next six years, some of which later achieved worldwide fame, the commercial fortunes of the Katsushika faded, and the better organized Utagawa came to dominate the field. Their stock in trade were images of actors and beautiful women, but they soon turned to the classics of Japanese and Chinese poetry and literature, which were now available to be simplified, annotated, and modernized for new material by astute authors and their artist collaborators.

A number of subgenres developed. Warrior prints on Chinese themes became popular, as did Chinese-inflected bird-and-flower prints, and heroic Japanese samurai of the past. Literary figures such as Genji, the “shining prince” of Murasaki Shikibu’s tenth century novel were now reimagined in amusing and inspiring ways. The final genre developed by Utagawa artists portrayed the newly arrived Westerners in the treaty port of Yokohama, which added an exotic touch for the delectation of audiences, and provides the last image here.

Landscapes are the crowning achievement of this period. Ukiyo-e artists made these from the eighteenth century onward, but in the early nineteenth century, the market was stimulated by the emergence of a leisure travel industry centered on pilgrimages. It became customary for guilds and groups of parishioners to club together to finance tours of far-off shrines and temples by their members. Travelers were expected to recount their road adventures upon their return. Such journeys required expertise in how to navigate the problems that might be encountered on the way, which created a flourishing market in travel guides describing post-stations, local beauty-spots, and other famous places. The publication of such humorous novels as the Shank’s Mare Tale (Tōkai dōchū hizakurige) by Jippensha Ikku (1765–1831) which recounted the picaresque adventures of a pair of hapless heroes—issued serially from 1802–22—also did much to popularize travel in general. This literature provided artists such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), with the local information and descriptions of topography that they employed to enliven their images. Stay-at-home patrons of the travelers could now enjoy celebrated places vicariously, without the expense, hassle, and physical exposure to the elements that actual travel could incur. Unlike figure prints, landscapes never went out of fashion and could be repeatedly printed until the blocks wore out.

To view the artworks in full size with captions, click on the large image and use the left and right arrow keys to go forward and backward. Click on the "×" on the right upper corner to exit full size viewing.