March 2022

Privately Commissioned Japanese Prints and Albums from the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries

March 18‒26, 2022
(closed Sunday, March 20)
11 AM to 5 PM, by appointment only

17 East 76th Street, 3rd Floor,
New York 10021

Tel: 212-794-1522

Watch Video:

Sebastian Izzard Talks About Privately Commissioned Japanese Prints


March 2022 Exhibition

The spring exhibition at Sebastian Izzard LLC Asian Art will feature surimono, the privately commissioned counterparts to the commercial Japanese woodblock prints of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Produced in small numbers for a mostly educated audience of literati, surimono were often more experimental in subject matter and treatment, and extravagant in printing technique, than commercial prints. The poetic texts which often appear on these prints were of equal importance to the illustrations, and because they were privately printed and distributed, surimono neither had to be approved by the censor nor do they bear publisher’s seals.

Unlike commercial publishing, cost was not a primary consideration in the production of surimono. Only the finest quality paper was employed. Skilled artisans cut highly refined and complex matrices of blocks which craftsmen worked with new and inventive procedures and materials. The recently developed color printing techniques included: wiped shading (bokashi); gauffrage, also known as embossed or blind printing (karazuri); stenciled ground mother-of pearl and mica powder (kirazuri); spray-printing (fukibokashi); burnishing (shomenzuri); and metallic pigments made from brass or tin, which gave the appearance of gold and silver. All were applied to give nuance to the prints and served to catch the eye and impart a luxurious, almost tactile quality to them. The shikishiban, or square paper shape, soon became the format of choice among the many ukiyo-e artists hired to design surimono.

By the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries surimono had evolved into two main forms: as an announcement or invitation to a special event; and as prints individually commissioned by poets or poetry groups to serve as a vehicle for illustrating their verses in celebration of the season or for some other chosen theme. The amateur poets who paid to have their poems included were often wealthy, and their patronage was a lucrative source of income for artists.

Surimono reached their apogee between the late Bunka era until the mid-Tempō period (1810–1835), a time of economic growth and lax fiscal policies. Two artistic groups dominated surimono production: the group of artists led by Katsushika Hokusai (1760‒1849) and his school, including Totoya Hokkei (1780‒1850) and Yashima Gakutei (1786‒1868), who specialized in still-life, landscape, and illustrations of classical Chinese and Japanese literature; and the artists led by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769‒1825)—and after his death in 1825 by Utagawa Kunisada (1786‒1865)—who became known for images of the theater and its performers. Fine examples by these artists as well as other renowned painters including Kitagawa Utamaro (1756‒1806) and Kubo Shunman (1757–1820) are featured.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a complete first edition set of Hiroshige’s “Eight Views of the Suburbs of Edo,” or Edo kinkō hakkei, long considered among his finest sets of prints. The series is thought to have been completed around 1837 to 1838 when Hiroshige, at age forty, had reached full maturity as an artist. Commissioned by the Taihaidō Poets Society, eight landscape subjects were selected, each of which featured a beauty spot in the far suburbs of Edo. The group then composed kyōka poems on the same theme; the best three or four were selected for inclusion on the landscapes themselves. Only first-edition sets include all the poems, as subsequent commercial editions of the prints omitted or replaced them, generally limiting them to one poem per image. Complete sets of the first edition are extremely rare, with only four examples extant.

A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies this exhibition.