The Edo period was a time of relative peace administered by a conservative military government. In order to encourage stability, and influenced by a revived interest in Confucian mores, the Tokugawa regime segregated society into four classes: warriors, farmers, artisans, and—at the bottom of the heap—merchants. Seeking to control public behavior, the Tokugawa shogunate set aside walled areas in all major cities for the establishment of brothels, teahouses, and theaters. In these districts all classes comingled, and money and style dominated.
Edo-period cities contained newly rich townspeople, mostly merchants and artisans known as chonin, who gained economic strength by taking advantage of the dramatic expansion of the cities and commerce. Eventually, they found themselves in a paradoxical position of being economically powerful but socially confined. As a result, they turned their attention, and their assets, to conspicuous consumption and the pursuit of pleasure in the entertainment districts.
While the military class continued to play an important role as art patrons, the pleasure quarters and the sophisticated entertainments they offered exerted an enormous impact on the culture of the Edo period. Celebrations of the exploits of the women, actors, and visitors of these districts provided the subject matter of the highly popular ukiyo zoshi novellas and ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints. The word ukiyo originally expressed the Buddhist idea of the transitory nature of life. This rather pessimistic notion was overturned during the Edo period. The character meaning “to float” was substituted for the homonym meaning “transitory” to express an attitude of joie de vivre. This hedonistic culture that glorified life in the “floating world” was particularly well expressed in the production of woodblock prints, which made available to anyone with a bit of extra cash captivating images of seductive courtesans, exciting kabuki actors, and famous romantic vistas. For the first time, artists were inspired by and responded to the interests and preferences of the general public.
Kabuki, performed in elaborate costumes and often with arresting make-up, provided viewers with highly entertaining plays drawn from traditional legends, historical events, and classical or popular stories. A fusion of dance and drama derived from the ancient Noh theater, kabuki was introduced in Kyoto at the beginning of the seventeenth century by a female performer named Okuni. Before it became an all-male theater, as it is today, kabuki underwent a series of transformations. After several years of success, the government, displeased by the highly profitable after-hours pursuits of the actresses, passed a series of prohibitions against female performers in 1629. The young boys who replaced them incurred a similar prohibition in 1652, after attracting too much attention from homosexuals, and their roles on stage were taken over by mature men.
Ukiyo-e represents the final phase in the long evolution of Japanese genre painting. Drawing on earlier developments that had focused on human figures, ukiyo-e painters focused on enjoyable activities in landscape settings, shown close-up, with special attention to contemporary affairs and fashions. As artists chose subjects increasingly engaged in the delights of city life, their interest shifted to indoor activities. The most favored subjects of painting in the early seventeenth century were scenes of merry-making at houses of pleasure, especially in the notorious Yoshiwara quarter of Edo. About the time of the Kanbun era (1661–72), actresses and the alluring courtesans of Yoshiwara were singled out for individual portrayal, often a scale larger than usual and garbed in opulent costumes.
Portraits of famous courtesans and actors were made more accessible to a mass audience in the form of inexpensive woodblock prints. The method of reproducing artwork or texts by woodblock printing was known in Japan as early as the eighth century, and many Buddhist texts were reproduced by this method. Until the eighteenth century, however, woodblock printing remained primarily a convenient way of reproducing written texts. What ukiyo-e printmakers of the Edo period achieved was the innovative use of a centuries-old technique.
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, woodblock prints depicting courtesans and actors were much sought after by tourists to Edo and came to be known as “Edo pictures.” In 1765, new technology made possible the production of single-sheet prints in a range of colors. The last quarter of the eighteenth century was the golden age of printmaking. At this time, the popularity of women and actors as subjects began to decline. During the early nineteenth century, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) brought the art of ukiyo-e full circle, back to landscape views, often with a seasonal theme, that are among the masterpieces of world printmaking (JP1847).
In the decade following the death of Hiroshige, in 1858, the major printmakers disappeared in the brutal sociopolitical upheavals that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867. Edo’s society, the mainstay of ukiyo-e art, underwent a drastic transformation as the country was drawn into a campaign to modernize along Western lines. Like many other elements of Japanese culture, ukiyo-e was swept away in the maelstrom that heralded the coming of a new age.
Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/plea/hd_plea.htm (October 2004)
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Singer, Robert T., ed. Edo: Art in Japan, 1615–1868. Washington: D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1998.
Thompson, Sarah E., and H. D. Harootunian. Undercurrents in the Floating World: Censorship and Japanese Prints. New York: Asia Society Galleries, 1991.