Ukiyo-e Themes and Tokugawa Culture, 1: Beauty, Love, & Sex

The woodblock art of ukiyo-e is, worldwide, the most famous emblem of Tokugawa Japan.  Because ukiyo-e were mass produced art, they were available to wide audiences and cheap to buy.  For this reason, and because the techniques and skills of woodblock carvers at the outset of the Tokugawa period were not yet highly developed, the form was not initially viewed as true art, but only as a gift-shop type of item.

From the start, ukiyo-e was associated with the "pleasure quarters" of the capital city of Edo, a district where houses of prostitution lined the streets.  A society within itself, this district, known as Yoshiwara, symbolized the loose and fleeting pleasures that came to be associated with the urban merchant class.

This association is reflected in the earliest themes of ukiyo-e: sex and physical beauty.  In fact, although many ukiyo-e artists are now among the most respected in world art history, most of these men relied on pornographic images to ensure that their work would be broadly purchased.

The first artist to begin to draw out the potential of the woodblock print was Moronobu (1631?-1694) [Note: Traditionally, ukiyo-e artists are referred to only by their personal names, rather than by surnames; Moronobu was, more properly, Hishikawa Moronobu.  These pages will follow convention and refer to artists by personal names only.]  Moronobu's prints were basically monochrome (black and white), though they were often hand painted.  An example of Moronobu's style can be seen in the street scene of the Yoshiwara District, at left.

The next print (right, below) is not definitely by Moronobu (it is unsigned), but it is in his style and exemplifies the type of erotic content of many of his prints.  The scene draws upon the tale of a flying immortal who was so distracted by catching sight of a beautiful woman washing her clothes that he fell from the sky.  By portraying the woman with skirts raised above the knee and legs spread, Moronobu makes explicit the sexual nature of the attraction.





Moronobu was most famous for portraits of lovers, which ranged from the intimately erotic to outright pornography (follow the link for examples of these modes of Moronobu's art).

Moronobu was also the first to use brightly colored backdrops and embroidery-like patterns in woodblock images.  As can be seen from the image at left.

After Moronobu, a major step forward was made by the artist Harunobu (1725-1770), whose delicate portraits of women and lovers in everyday activities were a great aesthetic advance.  Harunobu worked at a point in time when the techniques of ukiyo-e were far more advanced, though not yet at their apogee, and thus he had a far greater number of options to bring into play, such as a proliferating array of colorful dyes and improved cutting techniques.  The two examples below illustrate Harunobu's sytles.  On the left, a girl picking cherry blossoms by lamplight shows Harunobu's common use of night time images.  The delicate shape of the girl's figure and decoration of her kimono robe are characteristic of Harunobu's work.  The image on the right is less typical.  It shows a woman with a dancing monkey on a leash, keeping time for the monkey by beating on a small drum -- a scene encountered as part of annual new year's festivities.  Note how daring Harunobu's composition is.  Ink swirls create a dynamic backdrop, and calligraphy shares space with the images on the paper.


The greatest master of the theme of female beauty is generally regarded to be Utamaro (1753-1806), whose work has become well known in the modern West.  Utamaro's subjects are often courtesans (prostitutes), and the most celebrated of these were pampered, admired, sought after, and famous in their day.  Utamaro's prints capture their languorous eroticism in a uniquely understated way, as the two examples below illustrate.  At left, a courtesan who has just stepped from the bath is pictured in a state of casual undress, waited upon by her elegant maid.  At right, elegant calligraphy resonates with the sensuous image of the woman examining her own reflection in a mirror, while touching the back of her neck, traditionally an area of intimate eroticism in Japanese culture.


For all of the grace and tastefulness of an Utamaro print, Utamaro was also a master of the pornographic image, illustrated by the example linked here.



Utamaro's art is recognized around the world today, as reflected in the cover of a 2002 special "fashion number" of The New Yorker.