Artists of the Floating World, Part II

Posted: November 7, 2016 - 16:56 , by Diana Lu
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Written by Josiah Ariyama

Supervised by Dr. Asato Ikeda


In the sunset years of his life and a hundred years before Perry, Suzuki Harunobu revolutionized the woodblock printing method, rendering previous methods obsolete. In Part II we look at nishiki-e, full-coloured prints from 1765 onward. 



This print by Harunobu shows a scene in a pleasure house.

The two men may be lovers, a father and son, or perhaps unrelated at all.

“Two Couples in a Teahouse” Suzuki Harunobu, 1769-70 : 926.18.121


Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) has a known-total of some 1200 original works and designs, mostly published in the four-years before his death in 1770. Much the same way Moronobu (see Part: I) can be called the father of ukiyo-e, Harunobu can be called the father of the nishiki-e, meaning “brocade pictures”, or full-color prints. Although little is known of Harunobu’s life, it’s widely accepted that other than being an innovator, he was something of a socialite. He maintained relationships with celebrities, nobility and intellectuals from both the samurai and merchant classes, helping him gain recognition as a master. The woodblock printing industry was a complex enterprise which flourished upon the cooperation of the artists with publishers, distributors and assistants. His works dominate a large part of the Third Gender exhibition space.

Harunobu’s style has been widely copied and stands alone with a distinct artistic voice. His style can be identified by noting a few key elements. The Torobin Shimada hairstyle was the definitive hairstyle of the Edo period for young women, and would become increasingly ornate in visual presentation over the years. Harunobu’s beauties however had simple hair, often not unsimilar to the wakashu. His beauties, including beautiful women and wakashu were waifish and delicate. In scenes between lovers, one must often look a bit harder for subtle clues, such as hair pins, kimono prints, or shaved patches to discern the physical sex of the character.

In terms of design, he used simple palettes for colour, and would often paint a scene, featuring a historical character or interactions between multiple subjects. Intersecting lines, prints and patterns shaped the space for the characters to inhabit, establishing a strong narrative, that was sometimes referential.


Using ripples, reeds, a bench and fabric prints,

Harunobu creates an intimate scene between young lovers playing the same instrument.

“Two Lovers Playing the Same Shamisen”, Suzuki Harunobu 1766-69 : 926.18.120


Harunobu’s “mitate-e” of  a literary character, portrayed as a Wakashu

“Youth on a Long-Tailed turtle as Urashima Taro”

Suzuki Harunobu, 1767-69  : 926.18.110


Harunobu’s technological innovations of moving from creating images using a few woodblocks to several made products that had more depth, texture and avenues to express artistic voice and ability. Sumizuri-e, charcoal prints, and hand-painted works were not only considered less exciting, but this new technology also empowered commercialism to dominate the industry. In other words, now that multicolour works could be signed, sealed and delivered with the flick of a wrist and eliminating labour-intensity to the original print, amazing art was no longer just pulled out at poetry readings or parties. To place in context from Part: I, the elaborate and highly regarded actor prints and signboards by the Torii school in the pleasure districts could now be duplicated very quickly. Torii Kiyonaga took advantage of this new technology to revive the prestigious Torii school. One of the most celebrated artists of this time would copy Kiyonaga’s mass-produced beauties to develop his own style, one that would play with the lines between realism and fantasy. 



Utamaro’s triptych of a scene at the base of Mt. Fuji

Shows the dramatic evolution of style over a short period and his talent with realism.

“Hawking Party in Front of Mt. Fuji” Kitagawa Utamaro ca.1790 : 926.18.424


Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806) was in the right place at the right time. The economy in Edo was explosive. 1.3 million people, and over nine-hundred publishers with the latest technology, visual arts in Kyoto were crippled and the nishiki-e was in vogue. Not only beautiful works of art, but books, calendars and parodies, travel guides, business cards and more were distributed together in massive quantities. Most people were now familiar with famous areas and celebrities, whether from Edo or not, and distribution was carefully planned to coincide with what was happening in the kabuki theatre. With new capabilities came new ways of viewing art and the mitate-e was born.

A mitate-e is a form of furyu yatsushi, or “elegant reworking”. These were pictures of historical events, updated or shown through modern motifs. Mitate-e however specifically drew together two seemingly unrelated objects, people or scenes to add an intellectual depth to the work. These were very popular in Edo, especially after 1765 and produced by most famous or reputable artists. Utamaro’s success however, came from his work with publishers to produce massive amounts of single-sheet prints of beautiful women that were both highly detailed and stylistically much different than the Harunobu and Kanbun (See: Part I) beauties. 





Utamaro became most famously known for creating intimacy between the viewer and the subjects.

This was through the use of close-ups and putting emphasis on the realism of the characters regardless

Of the physical space.

Top:  “Profitable Visions in Daydreams of Glory”, Kitagawa Utamaro, 1801-02 :  926.18.546

Bottom: From “Twelve Forms of Women’s Handiwork”, Kitagawa Utamaro ca. 1795 : 926.18.426



Perspective, landscape and vivid colours would be the hallmark of woodblock prints from, the 19th century onward.

From “100 Views of Edo” Utagawa Hiroshige 1857 : 926.18.905


For the next seventy years, the Harunobus, Toriis and Utamaros would slowly wither from consciousness as the climax of the woodblock printing method met its crescendo with the Utagawa school. The Katsukawa School (not discussed in Part I or II, but an immensely prestigious branch of the famous Kano School) would become immortalized through the instantly recognizable works of Katsushika Hokusai, most notably his Great Wave off Kanagawa in the early 1830’s. It would be the Utagawa school however, which could be considered the last great school of pure, poetic and iconic Japanese traditional arts. Utagawa Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo would take Moronobu’s fascination with the floating world, the Torii’s obsession with celebrity and take advantage of Harunobu’s innovations to show what the woodblock printing method could accomplish before it would transition into a means to disseminate propaganda. On the cusp of the Meiji Restoration and with the first Sino-Japanese war looming, these were the last artists of the Floating World.