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Ukiyo painting of Mount Fuji

Five Masters of Ukiyo-e


Ukiyo-e is an engraving technique that produced some of the most memorable masterpieces in Japan.

Ukiyo, or “floating world”, was the name given to an urban lifestyle during Japan’s Edo period. It was the floating world of brothels, baths, tea houses and theaters, where the thriving commercial class satisfied its needs and relaxed from its work routine. Ukiyo-e, images of that floating world, developed under this display of hedonism.

Using a wood engraving technique known as xylography, Ukiyo-e had illustrious representatives. Below are five of the great masters that defined this school:

Hishikawa Moronobu (1618- 1694) contributed to defining the style with delicate monochromatic stamps, in which intimate scenes of erotic nature were predominant.

Later, Suzuki Harunobu (1724- 1770) took the technique further by including the use of colored inks, developing what would be known as nishiki-e. Several wooden dowels printed the image’s different colors on a single surface. The results are sublime compositions of fine tonalities that surpass ancient monochromatic stamps in both complexity and harmony.

But it was not until the end of the 17th century that the most representative artists of Ukiyo-e were born. Some of the most beautiful Japanese stamps were made by the dexterous hands of Kitagawa Utamaro (1753- 1806). His compositions of partially concealed female figures, called bijinga, are astounding due to the delicate harmony of their colors and the audacity of the compositions. The arrival of his work to Europe in the 19th century had a strong influence on French Impressionism.

But perhaps the two most popular Japanese engravers were Hokusai and Hiroshige. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), regardless of being the author of a prolific oeuvre, is mainly known for his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, and the Great Wave Off Kanagawa —whose reproductions are not hard to come by in interior design stores. With its choppy foam threatening a fragile fishing boat and Mount Fuji in the background, Hokusai’s wave has made its way around the world and lives on as an icon of the Japanese culture.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) was able to take landscape to its most elevated heights. His stamps of Mount Fuji and his views of everyday Edo life, with daring compositions and a masterly employment of greens and blues, have been a rich source of inspiration for photography and film.



1. Utagawa Hiroshige, Kanbara (1833)

2. Suzuki_Harunobu, Geese descending on the koto bridges (Kotoji rakugan, 1769)

3. Kitagawa Utamaro, Omigaya (18th century)

4. Katsushika Hokusai, Great Wave of Kanagawa (1826-33)

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