Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese traditional printing which was established during the Edo period and became popular among ordinary people in the 17th Century. Ukiyo-e prints also had an especially great influence on Impressionists, such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. This movement is called “Japonism.”
Let me start with its historical background. In the late 17th Century, under the peaceful reign of Tokugawa shogunate, merchants, who were the lowest class of the social hierarchy, became wealthy.
During that time, children of common people studied reading and writing at Terakoya schools operated by Buddhist priests. At that time, Japan’s literacy rate was more than 50％ which was the highest in the world, while England was at 14%. As many people were able to read and write, they were interested to know what’s happening and purchased wood-block print newspapers called Kawaraban.
In the 18th Century, when woodblock newspapers became popular, Ukiyo-e hanging scrolls also captured the interest of the people. Ukiyo-e mean's "floating world", so these scrolls depicted the beauty of an imaginary world, like a dreamland. Later on, Ukiyo-e printing was integrated with Kawaraban woodblock printing and Ukiyo-e hanging scroll.
Ukiyo-e prints are woodblock templates that are used to reproduce more than 2,000 copies from the original wood block set. In the Edo-period, common people were able to purchase this work at an affordable price. In contrast, Impressionists in Europe created their artworks one at a time and sold them at an expensive price usually to the upper class.
The evolution of Ukiyo-e prints can be traced from black and white prints that portrayed prostitutes entertaining wealthy clients. Then came the colored depiction of slender beauties to promote courtesans. When Kabuki plays became popular, people purchased Ukiyo-e portraits of Kabuki actors.
In the early 19th Century, people became wealthy enough to travel, and Hiroshige who was one of the notable artists of his time, drew a series featuring the 53 stations of Tokaido. Then Hokusai, who was behind one of the most famous Ukiyoe, The Great Wave, rendered 36 views of Mt. Fuji.
You might be interested to know how Impressionists crossed paths with Ukiyo-e prints. Around 1865, Blacquemond who was an Italian copperplate painter, found Hokusai manga in the cushion of Japanese ceramic packages. He then shared it with his fellow Impressionist artists. Two years later, the second Exposition Universelle was held in Paris. At this event, the Japanese government displayed more than 200 pieces of Ukioye. Many artists purchased Ukiyo-e as they had heard about it from Bulacquemond. By selling them all, the Japanese government earned foreign money.
And after several years, Ukiyoe art spread to other countries and started to influence European artists. This movement is called Japonism. Among those artists were Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cezanne.
Have you ever wondered why Ukiyoe attracted Impressionists? The following painting is one of Remoir's famous works called Charpentier Wife and Their Children. He painted it for his patron, Mr. Charpentier, who was a member of the upper class. On the other hand, Hokusai depicted Mt. Fuji and manual laborers like woodcutters and coopers in most of his works. As Ukiyo-e described the daily life of common people, Impressionists found it innovative and offered great degree of artistic freedom, unlike paintings commissioned by upper class patrons who usually dictated Impressionists how to do their work.
Many people may not be aware of this, but Van Gogh was a Ukiyoe enthusiast. In fact, he owned about 500 Ukiyoe prints. He held Hiroshige's prints in high regard and reproduced oil paintings imitating Hiroshige's style and adding his own vision to them.
Impressionists were inspired by Ukiyoe's dynamic layouts and crisp color usage. Notably, Hokusai's use of perspective influenced many Impressionists.
Is it a coincidence that Paul Cezanne’s design is very similar to Hokusai’s Ukiyo-e of the tea plantation which was printed 50 years earlier?
Moreover, many Impressionists used Hokusai Manga's sketches of people as inspiration for their works. For example, Edgar Degas' Dancer resembles Hokusai's Sumo Wrestler. What do you think? Aren't the similarities striking?
So now, you can understand why Ukiyoe made a huge impact to Impressionists. As I've mentioned before, Hiroshige and Hokusai influenced Impressionists because their works used a dynamic design, crisp colors and awe-inspiring color gradation that brought innovation, excitement and freshness to the world of visual arts.
I hope that you can not only appreciate Ukiyoe prints but also experience them, just as they captivated Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Renoir and many others.
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