Ukiyo-e – Japanese Woodblock Art Prints

The Japanese art movement called ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” created an important link between the Western and Eastern art world. Ukiyo-e art is also the name for Japanese woodblock prints or Japonisme. It developed in isolated Japan around the late 17th century and thrived for nearly two hundred years.

When European artists discovered ukiyo-e art, it was already a passé in Japan. However the European art scene fully embraced the style and subject matter of the Japanese art prints.

Japanese Woodblock Print called The Great Wave by Kanagawa
Japanese Woodblock Print called The Great Wave by Kanagawa
By Katsushika Hokusai [Public Domain]

What exactly is Ukiyo-art?

Ukiyo-e art were usually mass-produced woodblock prints. Initially the prints were in black and white only but later when it further developed, prints consisted of up to 30 different colors. A Japanese writer in the 17th century described ukiyo-e as a representation of the attitudes in Japan of that period, saying :

“living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of cherry blossoms; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; …, like a gourd floating along with the river current”

Ukiyo-e print depicting a cherry blossom tree by a river. Print by  Takahashi Hiroaki
Takahashi Hiroaki – Cherry Blossom at Riverside – Japanese art print [Public Domain]

As such, Ukiyo-e prints usually depicted scenes of world pleasures of the wealthy, like gorgeous courtesans, kabuki actors, stunning scenery and what was fashionable in those times. Japanese woodblock art was not meant to portray real life but rather the artist’s viewpoint without too much detail. These prints were usually flat in appearance, lacking depth.

The Discovery of the Ukiyo-e Art

In 1854 a treaty was signed between Japan and the US. Up until then, Japan and its culture was isolated and unknown to the Western world. A flood of Japanese imports entered the European markets exposing artists to the philosophies and artistic practices of Eastern countries.

The art world in Europe felt inspired by the Asian teachings and art. In particular, the Japanese woodblock prints by masters of the ukiyo-e movement appealed to many painters. In the 1870s a term Japonisme was coined. Japonisme referred to the new European art movement that arose from Asian and especially Japanese art.

To the eyes of the Westerner, ukiyo-e art epitomized the exotic Japanese tradition. Felix Bracquemond (the husband of the French Impressionist Marie Bracqumond) was one of the first artists to fully appreciate this Eastern art. He discovered a set of sketches of the Japanese artist Hokusai and was soon praising these sketches to his artistic friends in Paris.

Ukiyo-e Art and Impressionism

Ukiyo-e contributed to the development of Western art and in particular to the Impressionism art movement. The simple woodblock prints reaffirmed to the impressionist painters that they could portray scenes from everyday life without concern for detail or accuracy of the painting, but simply for the beauty of the painting itself.

Ukiyo-e art also influenced the Impressionists to focus on the subject only and to eliminate excessive details and complicated backgrounds from their paintings. It also gave the impressionists and post-impressionists an understanding of the beauty of a “flat” appearance in artwork.

Soon enough, this exotic Japanese art form became familiar and used in the Parisian artistic scene. Artists such as Manet, Pierre Bonnard, Gustave Caillebotte, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin & others were incorporating ukiyo-e elements in their own paintings.

Ukiyo-e Art & It’s Influence on Claude Monet

Claude Monet loved this art so much that he owned an impressive collection of woodblock prints, most of which still hang in his Giverny home today. In addition to influencing his painting, Monet also incorporated this exotic art form when designing his beautiful garden in Giverny. He placed an iconic Japanese bridge over his water-lily pond.

Ukiyo-e art and it's influence on Claude Monet.
Kotozuka Eiichi: Sanjo Bridge – Japanese art prints
Giverny - Monet Painting of his Japanese Bridge
Giverny – Monet Painting of his Japanese Bridge

The painters studied Japanese woodblock prints and started experimenting themselves with new ideas of perspective. Their paintings merged bright patterns of contrasting colors, often creating flat planes similar to woodblock prints. The flattening effect became predominant feature in modern art painting.

Japonisme – A Major Influence on Modern Western Art

Some art scholars believe that Ukiyo-e woodblock prints and in particular, the Japanese print-maker, Hokusai, as the “father” of modern Western art. This art form had a huge influence on the Impressionism, Post-Impressionism & the Nouveau art movements. The Japanese woodblock prints introduced the concepts of flat planes of color, asymmetrical compositions, unconventional poses, and everyday scenes into art. The modern masters of painting, architecture and design fully embraced these “Oriental” concepts.

Impressionists & Post-Impressionists & Japonisme