Japanese Woodblock Prints

The Japanese Gallery contains examples of ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo Period (1600-1868). The term ukiyo-e means "images of the floating world." This is a reference to the theatre and entertainment districts of urban Japan, especially those in Kyoto and Tokyo (then known as Edo). The most popular subjects were those of leisure and pleasure: images of courtesans and actors, of erotica and of the Kabuki theatre. Later, artists would adapt the ukiyo-e style that had been honed on these subjects to the depiction of landscapes, as in Hiroshiges album of prints, Thirty-SixViews of Fuji (c.1828-33). 


Ichiryusai Hiroshige
A Sudden Shower at the Great Bridge
Gift of W. B. Rogers, 23.762
At the time of their creation, ukiyo-e prints were not considered a fine art form; they were consumer goods, mostly reasonably priced, and created in multiples, rather than single original works of art. Some were inexpensive and cheaply made, but there were also private collectors who commissioned works for a particular occasion (this has been likened to having Tiffanys create custom Christmas cards). Although each print is today individually framed and displayed on the wall, during the Edo Period they would have been stored in albums similar to todays photograph albums.  
The woodblock printing process had been used in Japan as early as the 12th century, but the complex multi-color process on display here was not fully developed until the 17th century. The creation of an ukiyo-e woodblock print involved many people, not just the artist who created the image. 
Click here to watch a demonstration of the Ukiyo-e printmaking process
Japanese Block Printing Process
The first of these people was the publisher, who owned the workshops and sales outlets, commissioned the print for private circulation or as a commercial venture.
The publisher hired the artist, usually an independent contractor who worked in his own studio. The artist provided the initial sketch in black and white for the design ordered by the publisher. 
Next the copyist, employed by the publisher, would trace the artists original drawing on thin paper, preparing the image for the engraver, who pasted this copy face down on a block of seasoned cherry wood. When mostly dry, the engraver would gently rub away the paper until the lines on the underside of the paper were visible. Hempseed oil would be applied to make the remaining paper more transparent. The wood block would then be engraved so that the image would stand out in relief on the block. This process would result in a image which was the reverse of the original drawing. This first block would be called the keyblock and marked with a kento, or registration mark, which would allow each color block to be aligned properly with the first one. At this point the keyblock would be printed in black ink; this proof would be sent to the artist to be hand-colored. This hand-colored image would go back to the studio where the engraver would create a new block for each color needed. 
These blocks would be sent to the printer, who would apply the ink to each block and print the image, color by color, onto wet paper. The kento on each block would be used to align each image; each color would be printed separately until the full-color image was completed. Color gradation could be achieved by wiping the ink on the plate before printing; special effects might be achieved by the use of gums, lacquers, mica, metal dusts, or mother of pearl. An embossed pattern could be created with a polished boars tusk. The printer might create a limited edition of only a few full-color images, or several hundred, depending on the publishers requirements. Finally a number of seals might be applied to the image, such as the censors seal, the artists seal, the printers seal, and a date seal. Additionally the artists signature, series title and edition number might be hand-lettered onto the print.
Western Interest in Japanese Art
During the 1920s, W. B. Rogers (the father of Lauren Rogers) donated his collection of 142 Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints to the museum. With the assistance of art dealer Frederick Gookin, Mr. Rogers collected works by some of the best-known ukiyo-e artists of the Edo Period, such as Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige. Another bequest of a dozen more prints came from the Rogers family in the 1950s. Things Japanese were extremely popular in the U.S. and Europe in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century; the phenomenon was known as Japonisme and is likely the reason that the Rogers family engaged in this particular form of collecting. 
The new access to Japanese style was the result of the forced opening of Japanese ports by the U.S. in the 1850s; henceforth things Japanese (such as prints and pottery) flowed out of the country to eyes completely unfamiliar with them. Ukiyo-e prints in particular were widely admired by European and American artists such as Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt and Vincent van Gogh. Japanese ukiyo-e artists did not use traditional European linear perspective, employed close cropping of images to produce interesting visual effects, and used rich saturated color. These compositional approaches were new and refreshing to the modern eye, and appealed especially to modern artists seeking new inspiration. Van Gogh actually made several painted copies of ukiyo-e prints, and Cassatt embarked on a prolific print-making exploration in the early 1890s, inspired by the ukiyo-e style if not its techniques.
Ironically the very thing that brought ukiyo-e prints to Western awareness - the opening of Japanese trade - was the same thing that watered down the ukiyo-e tradition. European influences and tastes quickly changed the Japanese market, and the prints that had inspired so many were no longer produced. The Edo Period ended in 1868 with the return of an emperor to the throne of Japan, and
the downfall of the shogunate.
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