10 Stunning Japanese Woodblock Prints

10 Stunning Japanese Woodblock Prints

Japanese woodblock printing is a technique that finds its origins in the Buddhist temples of China, where it was used for centuries before being adopted and refined by Japanese artists during the Edo Period [1603-1867]. The method involves transferring hand-drawn images onto wooden blocks, cutting into the wood, and then printing with inks from these relief images.

The Japanese printing genre of ˜ukiyo-e produced many of the most stunning examples of this artwork, and this list concentrates on artists working in that era. During its evolution, woodblock printing developed to enable full-colour imagery to be mass-produced and widely distributed.

While this post covers printmakers up until the end of the 19th Century, ukiyo-e art had a major influence on subsequent movements, from Impressionism and Cubism, to Pop Art and Manga comics, and continues to inspire artists and designers into the 21st Century.

1. The Water Vendor, by Suzuki Harunobu [late 1760s]

The Water Vendor

Image: Wikimedia

Suzuki Harunobu [1724–1770] was a highly influential and innovative Japanese woodblock print artist, credited with introducing full-colour printing. Wealthy samurai patrons employed Harunobu to produce images of kabuki actors, courtesans, sumo wrestlers, and erotica, but he also depicted scenes of ordinary folk from the period in which he lived, revealing other aspects of the culture of his times.

In this print from the late 1760s, he portrays a street vendor selling water, a strikingly bold image despite its simple subject matter and composition.

2. A Woman Wiping Sweat, by Kitagawa Utamaro [1798]

Image: Wikimedia

Kitagawa Utamaro [c. 1753-1806] is considered by many to be one of greatest of all Japanese woodblock artists due to his inventive style, bold use of light and dark tones and, particularly, his sublime portraits of beautiful women, such as this piece from 1798, A Woman Wiping Sweat.

He was a rare example of an ukiyo-e artist who achieved national fame during his own lifetime. At the height of his success, however, he ran into trouble after publishing Hideyoshi and his Five Concubines, which depicted the wife and concubines of a 16th Century military leader based on a banned historical novel.

Charged with insulting the dignity of the real Hideyoshi, Utamaro was sentenced and handcuffed for 50 days, a devastating experience that ended his artistic career.

3. Ejiri in Suruga Province, by Katsushika Hokusai [1830-1833]

Ejiri in Suruga Province

Image: Wikimedia

Mount Fuji has always captured the imagination of Japanese people, including master printmaker Katsushika Hokusai [1760–1849] who created the classic series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, containing some of the most famous examples of the ukiyo-e art form.

His art captures the landscape in different seasons and weather conditions: in this image we see travellers caught in a burst of wind on the marshes with hats and papers whisked into the sky, the force of the gale contrasting with the tranquillity of the mountain, which is rendered in a single line.

Hokusai's work became hugely popular and influential on subsequent generations of artists: Impressionist painter Claude Monet is known to have owned a copy of this print, while Canadian artist Jeff Wall meticulously recreated the scene in a large-scale digital photograph for his 1993 piece A Sudden Gust of Wind [after Hokusai].

4. Susaki and the Jumantsubo Plain near Fukagawa, from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, by Utagawa Hiroshige [1856-1858]

Susaki and the Jumantsubo Plain near Fukagawa

Image: Wikimedia

During his life, Utagawa Hiroshige [1797-1858] dominated Japanese landscape printmaking, producing pictures of his travels around the country, and of vistas of the capital in his series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which included this print, Susaki and the Jumantsubo Plain near Fukagawa.

Hiroshige was highly creative with his use of composition as can be seen here, with the powerful body of the eagle preparing to dive for its prey framing the top of the image, juxtaposed against the wintry landscape around Edo Bay, seen from a 'bird's-eye-view' perspective.

5. Great Bridge, Sudden Shower at Atake from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, by Utagawa Hiroshige [1856-1858]

Great Bridge, Sudden Shower at Atake from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

Image: Wikimedia

In this scene, also from Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, we see people crossing a bridge caught in a rain shower. The artist characteristically combines a naturalistic record of weather effects with a dynamic perspective including an unusually skewed horizon that lends the composition a 'snap-shot' aesthetic.

His work was powerfully influential, both for his contemporaries and subsequent artists: Vincent Van Gogh collected Hiroshige's prints, incorporating stylistic elements into his own paintings, and even made direct copies from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, including a rendition of this print.

6. Sumo Triptych, by Utagawa Kunisada [1860s]

Sumo Triptych

Image: Wikimedia

Amongst the ukiyo-e artists of the Edo Period, Utigawa Kunisada [1786-1865] was probably the most popular and financially successful. He was also incredibly prolific, producing as many as 25,000 woodblock prints during his lifetime.

Kunisada made prints in a range of styles, specialising in portraits of actors and cornering the market in Sumo pictures, such as this triptych that he made during the 1860s. On the left panel, we see a gyoji (referee) holding a war-fan, while a shipman (umpire) is seated to the right. The rippling bodies of the battling wrestlers form the dynamic centre of the composition.

7. Sakata Kaido-maru Wrestles with a Giant Carp, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi [c. 1837]

Sakata Kaido-maru Wrestles with a Giant Carp

Image: Wikimedia

Utagawa Kuniyoshi [1797-1861] is celebrated as a true master of Japanese woodblock printing, and was immensely popular during his life. He worked in a range of styles, but perhaps his most entertaining images are of warriors battling supernatural creatures.

In this print, the hero Sakata Kaido-maru, rendered in bright red, wrestles a giant carp under a waterfall, in an image that combines courageous antics with strong design qualities in a strange, dream-like atmosphere.

8. Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre Invoked by Princess Takiyasha, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi [c. 1845]

Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre Invoked by Princess Takiyasha

Image: Wikimedia

In this triptych woodblock print, also created by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, we see the 10th Century sorceress Takiyasha calling upon the Skeleton Spectre to attack the warrior Mitsukuni.

The picture was made in 1845, at a time when the Japanese public had a growing fascination with exciting and ghastly stories, themes that were reflected in much of Kuniyoshi's work with his depictions of heroes and beastly monsters.

9. Inaba Mountain Moon from One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi [1885]

Inaba Mountain Moon from One Hundred Aspects of the Moon

Image: Wikimedia

Many experts consider Tsukioka Yoshitoshi [1839-1892] to be the last great master of Japanese woodblock printing, working at a time when the art form was beginning to be eclipsed by Western mass-printing methods such as photography and lithography. Many of his masterpieces feature in One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, a series of illustrations of Chinese and Indian legends, poets, musicians and legendry heroes, all with a Luna theme.

Here in this scene, set in the 16th Century, the young Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi commands a moonlit attack on a castle on Inaba Mountain.

10. Battle of the Yellow Sea, by Kobayashi Kiyochika Inoue Kichijirô [1894]

Battle of the Yellow Sea

Image: Wikimedia

This triptych woodblock print by Kobayashi Kiyochika [1847-1915] shows a scene from the Naval Battle of the Yellow Sea, Korea, which took place during the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. While the image records a historic event, with apparently accurate uniforms and weaponry, the artist maintains the careful pictorial considerations, strong stylistic notes and compositional balance, which characterise the finest Japanese woodblock printing.