The Key Artists of Ukiyo-e Art – The Middle Years

Post Suzuki Harunobu’s death, the domain of Ukiyo-e arts took a new direction through the incorporation of new artistic approaches. The major new trends were a higher focus on women and a detailed approach towards the depiction of Kabuki artists. The key artists of Ukiyo-e art who rendered these changes in the middle period of the art’s development have been noted below.

Katsukawa Shunsho

Katsukawa Shunsho and his school revived a form of printing that had almost become extinct. Modern artists like Harunobu and Kiyonaga had stayed away from this sub-genre due to which its popularity had waned. This was the theatrical printing of actor-portraiture. Katsukawa shifted the focus away from romances and women. Instead, the Katsukawa school concentrated on actor-portraiture.

In this sub-genre, Katsukawa became the supreme master. He mostly used the hoso-ye form, which originally was three-on-a-block prints divided later on. The artist rarely made full-size print works. His works showcase more expressive human emotions than found in the paintings of his contemporaries. Katsukawa evoked these emotions both through facial expressions and body language. The work featured below shows two actors performing their roles.

The Actor Nakamura Sukegoro II and the Onnagata Actor Segawa Kikunojö II (Katsukawa; Edo period c. 1769)

Katsukawa’s women characters were highly graceful, as can be observed from the work below. The painting presents expressive subjects in a theatrical scene. It showcases another important distinctive feature of the artist. Unlike others, Katsukawa frequently used the color black.

Katsukawa Shunsho – Haikaiyobukodori c. 1788

Kitao Shigemasa

Kitao Shigemasa is one of the key artists of Ukiyo-e art and an extremely distinctive one. This is because unlike most artists, Shigemasa largely created ehons. An ehon is an old Japanese book. E stands for picture while hon denotes book in Japanese. Shigemasa mainly created complete ehons. He collaborated with Katsukawa Shunsho to create one of his most widely known ehons. This was a book about the best-known prostitutes of his era whose English title is Mirror of Beautiful Women of the Green Houses. A ‘Green House’ in old Japanese terminology indicates a brothel. Shigemasa presented the famous geishas of his period through detailed paintings that evoked their individual personalities.

Apart from this, another of his uniqueness is a high concentration on nature. An example of this is the work featured below. It presents expressive colors, a high focus on nature, and an animal as the key subject. Therefore, the work proves that Shigemasa developed his own distinct identity through a unique vision regarding subjects.

Birds and Iris – Kitao Shigemasa

Utagawa Toyoharu

Like Okumura Masanobu, Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814) too was highly influenced by the Western style of perspective viewing. He studied the works of Kyoto artists and furthered the concept of Uki-e as envisioned by Masanobu. This approach interprets a scene through coherent spatial linkages. Toyoharu represented scenes from Kabuki theaters but strictly adhered to the rules established by geometric perspective. This he implemented in various external and internal scenes.

Toyoharu came to the scene of perspective arts three decades after the emergence of the first generation of Uki-e artists. The first generation included the original master Okumura Masanobu. Toyoharu was the first to create multicolored Uki-e woodblock printings (Nishiki-e). His compositions have striking similarities with those of architectural painter Hans Vredeman de Vries. Additionally, they also showcase inspirations from the Western method of perspective illustrations found in old textbooks. Toyoharu could access Western copper prints that were imported from Deshima which operated as a Dutch trading post. Thus the region acted as a converging point of Western and Asian arts.

An example of Toyoharu’s approach is the work considered below. It showcases geometric convergence of straight lines through which the artist evoked a sense of depth. Diagonal lines intersect receding parallel lines. This creates a series of rooms that form the foreground and middle ground layers of the work. The most amazing aspect of the work is that the background itself has a number of constituting layers. The observer can see the room with people at the back. Adjacent to it runs a pathway that recedes to a gate at the farthest back. Behind it, there are gigantic trees that form the final layer of depth.

Toyoharu’s focus on geometric perspective can be discerned through the painting’s emphasis on the roof. The ceiling contains straight lines that are geometrically aligned which acquire a large portion of the canvas.

Artwork by Japanese Uki-e artist Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814)

Thus, these masters were the key artists of Ukiyo-e art in the middle years who shaped the course of this genre through their individual visions.

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the origin of ukiyo-e art

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