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Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

These two actors are wearing elaborate costumes for a play in the Kabuki theater.
Utagawa Toyokuni (Japanese, 1769-1825), Ichikawa Danzo as Shundo Jiroemon, Morita Kanya as Takaichi Buemon, 1798

Wearing the latest kimono styles, the beauties depicted in bijin-ga were admired by women hoping to copy the fashions for themselves.
Kikugawa Eizan (Japanese, 1787-1867), Woman Holding a Roll of Paper, 19th century

These two women show off their elaborate hairstyles decorated with ornamental hairpins called kanzashi .
Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, 1753-1806), The Courtesans Hanaogi and Takigawa of the Ogiya House, 1805

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Sublime Subjects

Ukiyo-e prints reveal a lot about how the Japanese enjoyed life during the Edo period. Entertaining activities helped people escape strict government rules, and the attractions of theater, fashion, and nature provided subjects for ukiyo-e artists.

Among the most stylish subjects of ukiyo-e prints was Kabuki theater. In Kabuki plays, male actors performed popular stories. Like today’s movie stars, the most famous Kabuki actors were adored. Admirers bought portraits of them in theater roles or relaxing backstage and enjoying life.

Other well-liked ukiyo-e prints were bijin-ga, or “pictures of beautiful women.” They portrayed stylish and talented women looked up to for their trendsetting fashions and grace. These beauties wore luxurious kimonos (Japanese robes) and had fancy hairstyles. Many Japanese women used the prints as a fashion guide. Educated in music, dance, and poetry, bijin represented the essence of human beauty.

In the late Edo period, when the government began to allow more travel, Japanese landscapes became a favorite ukiyo-e subject. People bought prints of places they visited or places they wished to go. Many of these picturesque views feature Mount Fuji.

The grandeur of nature is emphasized by the crashing waves, towering rocks, and distant Mount Fuji, which seem to dwarf the clinging trees, minuscule boat, and flock of birds.
Ando Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797-1858), Satta Beach of Suruga Bay, 1858, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji
May 2007