Asia Society

Hishikawa Moronobu: First Master of Ukiyo-e

Hishikawa Moronobu (1630/31?–1694) had an enduring influence on all later artists of ukiyo-e. He created a distinctive brand of ukiyo-e associated with the city of Edo that is recognizable by style, subject matter, and variety of techniques and formats. From his success as a book illustrator, he came into his own as a painter and established a studio close to the theater district and his publishers in downtown Edo.

From Moronobu’s time, handicrafts and trade were controlled by guilds and families, the latter operating an apprentice system, with succession passing to the eldest son or an adopted apprentice. There were separate guilds for block cutters, printers, publishers, booksellers, and countless other trades. These fraternal organizations developed strong loyalties, rivaling those of the samurai class. With the switch to a money economy, the rising merchant class prospered, although it had no political power, and nurtured its own highly literate culture that transcended class barriers.

Moronobu’s books, prints, and paintings catered to all groups. A favored advisor to the shogun, for example, is proposed as the patron who commissioned the luxury handscroll A Visit to the Yoshiwara in the John C. Weber Collection. As the scroll itself reveals, serious visitors to the pleasure quarter in the later 1680s were mostly samurai with the leisure time and means to enjoy it.