Asia Society

The Nineteenth Century: Expanding the Parameters of Ukiyo-e

Artists and publishers were quick to tap the mass-market potential of printed ukiyo-e. In the nineteenth century, large numbers of independent publishers, some of them former printers and engravers, set up to produce books and sheet prints. Competition within this always cut-throat industry spawned dazzling new printing and engraving techniques and new subject matter, in particular, the national landscape. Synthetic pigments were introduced from the West. “Prussian” or “Berlin” blue proved especially effective in landscape and bird-and-flower prints. As print runs multiplied to meet demand and as popular artists began to require payment up front, publishers began to cofinance projects and to secure outside sponsorship through private patronage and product-placement advertising.

In order to expand their markets, artists traveled to other cities. Both Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865) took on students in Osaka, sparking a boom in actor prints there. While all artists solicited private commissions for luxury paintings, their reputations were increasingly rewarded for their commercial work. The Utagawa school specialized in commercial prints of actors, beauties, “famous places,” legends, heroes, and foreigners. By the 1840s, the Utagawa artists began to supersede Hokusai and his circle. Nearly every major artist of the period had some link to its three leaders, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi (1798–1861), and Hiroshige (1797–1858).