Ukiyo-e and Impressionism By Lauren Tombari

By Lauren Tombari
Instructor Chinghuey Tiao
Asian Art History
November 30, 2006

Ukiyo-e and Impressionism:

A Comparison of the Works of
Japanese Ukiyo-e Artists
European Impressionists

The Japanese art of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” formed an important link between Eastern and Western art. Developing in isolated Japan in the late seventeenth century, ukiyo-e flourished for almost two hundred years under artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro, Suzuki Harunobu, and Katsushika Hokusai. When this art form was discovered in Europe, ukiyo-e had already passed its prime in Japan. However, the ukiyo-e style profoundly influenced the work of European Impressionists, including some of my favorite artists: Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, and Claude Monet.

Ukiyo-e began in the 1660s in Japanese cities, especially Edo (modern Tokyo). By the mid-1600s, Edo, the new capital of Japan, had undergone a rapid transformation from a simple village of 100 huts to a sprawling, glitzy metropolis, mostly of the “nouveau riche” (Michener 34). Visitors could easily lose a fortune enjoying the city’s many amusements, ranging from shops and kabuki theatres to the Yoshiwara pleasure district, which featured 3,289 courtesans, 153 houses of prostitution, and 394 tea rooms, where many intellectual discussions took place (Michener 42). This thriving, new city was the ideal center for the new art movement of ukiyo-e.

Ukiyo-e were mass-produced woodblock prints, as well as expensive paintings. Initially made only in black and white, these prints later employed as many as thirty different colors (Michener 84). A seventeenth-century Japanese novelist described ukiyo-e as a representation of the attitudes of the Edo period, “living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of […] the cherry blossoms; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; caring not a whit […], like a gourd floating along with the river current” (Lane 11). This self-indulgent attitude is an accurate description of the content of an ukiyo-e print, capturing scenes from the daily lives of the people of Edo. In addition to the everyday scenes they depicted, these prints offered a glimpse into an expensive world of pleasure: gorgeous courtesans, kabuki actors, and beautiful landscapes, always depending on what was in vogue at the moment. The ukiyo-e prints themselves tend to be flat, with an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of subjects, colors, and brushstrokes (Michener 97). The viewer often looks down on the scene from an angle. Ukiyo-e is not meant to be true to life, but rather an artist’s representation of life, without excessive details.

The European Impressionist movement that arose in France in the late nineteenth century was very similar to ukiyo-e. Like the ukiyo-e artists, the Impressionists painted everyday scenes and landscapes, emphasizing the artist’s initial reaction to a subject and the impression of a subject, rather than an accurate depiction. As in Edo, the city of Paris was a great metropolis where all of the pleasures of life could be found. Consequently, the Impressionists were also able to paint the theatres, restaurants, racetracks, dances, and beautiful women.

In addition to developing in a similar urban setting and depicting similar subjects, Impressionism was significantly influenced by ukiyo-e. In 1867, the World’s Fair was held in Paris, and featured the first display of Japanese art to the general public in the West (Salvi 22). Many of the French Impressionists were excited to see ukiyo-e, and eventually acquired large collections of these prints. Ukiyo-e would have a profound effect on the styles and techniques of the Impressionists, allowing the comparison of individual European and Japanese artists.

For example, Kitagawa Utamaro, renowned for his depiction of beautiful women, created a lovely woodblock print, Midnight: The Hours of the Rat (see Figure 1). In this 36.5 cm by 24.4 cm print, a young, smiling woman wears a luxuriant kimono, richly decorated in various prints and shades of yellow, enveloping her, and swaddling her baby. Only a portion of the woman is visible. She leans over the baby, tenderly cradling her infant son in her arms while enduring an awkward pose in order to shelter and protect him. She has an intricate, almost unrealistic, hairstyle, indicating, along with the kimono, that she is probably wealthy enough to have servants attend to her and her baby. The personal attention she is giving the baby, rather than letting anyone else care for him, even at midnight, shows her love for her son. The print’s warm yellows (indeed, the only color in the print) reinforce the feeling of love that permeates the scene. The infant looks well fed, another sign of the mother’s expert care for her baby. He holds his hands to his mouth, hungry and waiting to be fed.

The print itself is flat and two-dimensional. The viewer is not involved, but merely a spectator. The left side of the print is almost empty compared to the right, which probably made the awkward pose necessary to maintain balance. The print is devoid of any details beyond the mother and her child, and the figures themselves consist of simple lines. The patterns on the kimono add texture to the print, and its floral pattern suggests that the setting for the print is spring or summer (“Kimono.”). The use of yellow in this print of mother and child may allude to the story of Kintoki, the Golden Boy, who was raised in isolation by his devoted, loving mother to become a hero (Michener 166). Regardless of who is the focus, this print is a perfect example of the scenes of daily life captured by ukiyo-e.

Inspired by Utamaro’s Midnight, the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt painted Maternal Caress, using drypoint and aquatint on 36.8 cm by 26.8 cm, cream laid paper (see Figure 2). Like Utamaro, Cassatt depicts a mother hugging her nude baby close to her body. Both mother and child have their eyes closed, cherishing their moment together, focused only on each other. Although the woman does not have a kimono, she wears a richly patterned dress in accordance with her social status. Like Utamaro, Cassatt chose yellow for her painting to show the obvious love and longing that the mother and child feel for each other. Both of these paintings allow the viewer to reminisce about treasured moments with his own mother.

Cassatt’s work is also flat, but it is much more realistic and detailed than its Japanese counterpart, clearly showing a bedroom scene rather than a void background. While more detailed than ukiyo-e, the subjects in Maternal Caress are much simpler than they would be in her contemporaries’ paintings. The child is formed from a few simple curves, and the bed from straight lines. The viewer sees a complete frontal view of the woman, while the child is only seen partly, from the side. This positioning suggests that the mother is the central focus of the painting, whereas in Midnight, the child is the main subject. There are no shadows in the painting. As with Utamaro, the viewer witnesses this everyday scene, but does not participate.

The art historian Griselda Pollock asserts that “the mother hugs the naked baby to her with an intensity that is almost painful. Its little face, by contrast, registers only joyous delight in being there” (Pollock 177). She goes on to suggest that the mother and child represent the Madonna and the infant Christ, a common symbol in Western paintings. No matter its symbolism, the mother and child image is wholly characteristic of Mary Cassatt, and the ordinariness of this particular scene makes it remarkably similar to ukiyo-e.

Another ukiyo-e artist and an innovator in the application of numerous colors to his prints, Suzuki Harunobu depicts life in the Yoshiwara with his woodblock print, Courtesan on Veranda (26 cm by 19 cm) (see Figure 3). In this print, a young courtesan has just stepped outside of the tea house, where music is playing and people are engaged in conversation. This is a typical scene in the Yoshiwara and a common subject for ukiyo-e. The courtesan is tall and willowy. Her unusually plain, red-and-white kimono and simple hairstyle ensure that the viewer’s eye is drawn to her and not her clothing. Unaware of the viewer, she stands alone on the porch, gazing sadly down at pretty, yellow flowers next to a water basin made from a green tree stump. At the bottom left, a brown, thatched fence blocks most of the flowers from sight. The wood of the paneling and the tree stump add texture to the flat, but detailed print. With the heavy subjects appearing in the bottom left, the print appears weighted down in this corner.

This print shows the secluded and private world of the courtesans. The woman on the raised porch is separated by space from the flowers, unable to escape the Yoshiwara and reach the natural world outside. The fence both blocks the viewer from entering the scene and the pleasure district, while simultaneously creating another barrier that the courtesan cannot cross. The viewer looks down on the woman from an angle, a silent witness to her sadness.

Based on historical accounts of the Yoshiwara district, many women were sold into prostitution at a very young age, and once imprisoned, they could not escape due to the debts they accumulated and the high walls surrounding the district (“Yoshiwara.”). Richard Lane comments that the print captures the “moment of reflection when the entertainer must feel the squalor, the folly of it all, and long, if only momentarily, for some other way of life” (Lane 108). True to ukiyo-e, this print depicts some of the commonplace, if less pleasant, aspects of life.

A similar sentiment is expressed in Edgar Degas’ sketch in pastels, A Coryphee Resting (see Figure 4). In this unadorned sketch, a tired ballerina rests after her exhausting rehearsal. She raises up one knee to rest her arm and head, and her skirt billows out around her like a flower. The viewer sympathizes with her, and is almost ready to cross into the picture and sit down on the bench beside her. The dancer looks very realistic, despite the readily apparent lines from the soft pastels that are used to form her. She is sketched like a “snapshot, freezing a moment of time” (“Edgar Degas.”). The rest of the sketch looks flat and unrealistic. As with Harunobu’s Courtesan, the picture is heavily weighted on the left, and almost empty on the right.

Both Degas and Harunobu have depicted a popular leisure activity of the day, in which these women entertain others.
Thus, it is unsurprising that the emotions of the dancer are akin to those of the courtesan. Because dancers’ costumes were very revealing, especially for the strict Victorian age, these dancers were often considered to be “sexually available” (Stokstad 987). In exchange for becoming a wealthy man’s lover, a dancer would be supported financially, in much the same way as a Japanese courtesan. Thus, in both of these works, the young women are tired of their roles as entertainers and have paused for a moment to reflect on their condition.

Finally, one of the last great ukiyo-e artists, Katsushika Hokusai, created a very famous woodblock print (see Figure 5). Great Wave at Kanagawa (27 by 37 cm) shows the instant before a massive wave crashes over two long boats full of small, cowering people, insignificant compared to the water around them. The wave is like a monster, with foamy fingers reaching out to grab its victims. Its dark blue color adds a sinister nature to the tsunami. The waves are so large that even the smaller ones dwarf Mount Fuji in the distance. In so doing, they appear to be icy mountains themselves, with foam from the large wave falling like snow. The viewer watches this scene from safety, feeling awe and respect for the impressive forces of nature.

While Mount Fuji is used in the distance to give the print some depth and perspective, the print still appears flat, as is typical of ukiyo-e. The scene portrays fishermen performing their normal, everyday activity, until the massive wave strikes and the fear and danger of the moment are captured in the ukiyo-e print. Symbolically, the picture relates to the Japanese dependence on the sea for food and the need to respect the forces of nature. As an island nation, Japan rightly feared and respected these tsunamis. In addition to conveying respect, Hokusai’s landscape was very innovative, positioning “a small Mount Fuji within the midst of a thundering seascape” (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art).

French Impressionist Claude Monet owned a copy of Hokusai’s print, and was inspired by the Japanese artist to paint the ocean (see Figure 6). His oil painting, Waves Breaking (59.7 cm by 81.3 cm), shows the foaming ocean as a swirl of whites, blues, greens, and yellows. However, while the viewer was relatively safe in Hokusai’s print, Monet’s waves are coming directly at the viewer. The waves are only the artist’s representation, and are meant to look colorful, not realistic. The brush strokes used to form the waves are clearly evident. This scene does not convey the threat that is felt in Hokusai’s work, but the vibrant, frenzied ocean still dominates the painting.

Monet was intensely interested in the way the light affected the colors of the water. He once painted the same subject 50 different times, each in a different shade of light (Salvi 42). In the true spirit of ukiyo-e, he explained: “Since there is not just one view of reality, the painter should […] portray it as constantly changing” (Salvi 42). The display of the changing light on the water makes the waves appear to be moving and ephemeral, like the subjects of ukiyo-e.

European impressionists were able to learn much from ukiyo-e. These simple prints reaffirmed their choice to depict scenes from everyday life without concern for the accuracy of the painting, but simply for the beauty of the painting itself. Ukiyo-e also inspired the Impressionists to paint the subjects so as to make them appear flat, and to eliminate excessive details and complicated backgrounds from their works so that they could focus only on the subject, characteristics evident in the works of all three Impressionist artists described. Additionally, they experimented with innovative placements of their subjects and new vantage points from which to see these subjects. Mary Cassatt especially was inspired to use vivid colors in her artwork. Through Japanese artists’ perfection of brushstroke techniques as used in calligraphy, painters such as Monet discovered the importance of the texture and precision of their brushstrokes. Many of the innovations in Western art can be traced to ukiyo-e.

Ukiyo-e contributed much to Western art, uniting the art of these two very different civilizations, and forming a cultural bridge between the East and the West. Researching this topic has given me a deeper understanding of my favorite artists, and has allowed me to develop a greater appreciation for a specific Japanese art. Even more importantly, however, a comparison of these two distinct art forms has only further emphasized the similarities between peoples half a world away. Both the Japanese and the Europeans shared the joy of a mother with her child, the sadness of a hopeless situation, and the awe of the natural world around them, indicating that different cultures have more in common than is apparent upon first glance.

Works Cited

Barter, Judith A. Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1998.

“Edgar Degas.” Wikipedia. 23 Nov 2006. 24 Nov. 2006 .

“Kimono.” Wikipedia. 16 Nov 2006. 24 Nov. 2006 .

Lane, Richard. Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print. Hong Kong: Konecky &
Konecky, 1978.

Michener, James A. The Floating World. New York: Random House, 1954.

New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Katsushika Hokusai: Great Wave at Kanagawa.”
Timeline of Art History. Oct. 2006. 23 Nov. 2006. hd/jpon/hod_JP1278.htm>.

Pollock, Griselda. Mary Cassatt, Painter of Modern Women. New York: Thames & Hudson,

Salvi, Francesco. Masters of Art: The Impressionists. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. 2nd Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2005.

Sutton, Denys. Edgar Degas: Life and Work. New York: Rizzoli, 1986.

“Ukiyo-e.” Wikipedia. 23 Nov 2006. 24 Nov. 2006 .

“Yoshiwara.” Wikipedia. 23 Nov 2006. 24 Nov. 2006 .

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Artist 藝術家 . (簡歷) College Instructor 大學講師 . Newspaper Columnist 報紙專欄作家 . Traveler 旅行者 旅住歐美多年; 藝術碩士(MFA, Honored with Distinction) 美國大學教藝術史,教學評鑑獲特優(College instructor, Art History,Teaching Evaluation Exceeding Excellence).