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  • Ukiyo-e Landscapes and Edo Scenic Places (1914)
  • Nagai Kafū
    Translated by Kyoko Selden (bio) and Alisa Freedman (bio)


As the name suggests, ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) originally specialized in depictions of the manners and customs of women and children, as well as portraits of actors, but later the changing tastes of the era and artists' maturing skills led to the production of great landscapes.

From the start, ukiyo-e and Western painting have been quite similar in that both emphasize shasei (realistic representation of nature). Landscape in Western painting emerged out of the background portions of portraiture and gradually became an independent subject. This separation began in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, continued through the eighteenth century, and was perfected in nineteenth century French Romanticism. In other words, landscape painting arose after the development of portraits. Our ukiyo-e shares this characteristic. The fūzokuga genre (pictures of manners and customs) of ukiyo-e developed with Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-70), Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93), and Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815), reaching its height of maturity with such masters of the Kansei period (1789-1800) as Kitagawa Utamaro (circa. 1753-1806), Katsukawa Shunchō (?-1821), Chōbunsai Eishi (1756-1829), and Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825). At that point, the two great masters appeared—Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Ichiryūsai Hiroshige (1797-1858)1 who perfected landscape as an independent ukiyo-e genre, adding a final magnificence to the Edo period history of commoners' art.

In discussing landscapes by Hokusai and Hiroshige, I would like to first inquire into the course of the development of ukiyo-e landscapes. I find one source to be uki-e (literally, "floating pictures," or perspective pictures)2 of distant views, prolific since Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764), and I consider the second source to be the influence of kyōka (comic poetry in 31 syllables) that flourished in Edo during the Tenmei period (1781-88). Following Suzuki Harunobu, artists like Katsukawa Shunshō and Isoda [End Page 210] Koryūsai (1735-90) added sophistication to ukiyo-e in composition and coloring. In the Tenmei period, the background of some fūzokuga had already begun to constitute perfect landscapes. Examples are the backgrounds of Torii Kiyonaga's triptych A Pilgrimage to Enoshima (Jijo Enoshima-mōde, about 1789) and Kitagawa Utamaro's Ferry Across the Sumida River (Sumidagawa watashibune, date unknown). The trend of the era finally came to demand landscape representations independent of genre pictures.

Now, since the Genbun (1736-41) and Kyōhō (1716-36) periods, there has been a kind of panoramic painting called "uki-e" (floating picture). This genre represented interior and exterior views of brothels and theaters, scenes from The Treasury of 47 Loyal Retainers (Chūshingura, first performed in 1748) and The Soga Felling Ten Enemies (Soga jūbangiri, 1720)3 and famous places and religious sites. Urushi-e and beni-e (pictures colored with lacquer and safflower, respectively)4 from around the Kanpō (1741-44) and Enkyō (1744-48) periods already skillfully depicted distant scenes and crowds of people based on techniques of Western perspective drawing. Artists like Okumura Masanobu and Torii Kiyomitsu (1735-85) created such block copies in addition to portraits, but during the An'ei period (1772-81), Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814) exclusively produced distant views of famous places, which became fashionable. The Kansei period had already seen a trend toward mass production of inferior work.

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Kitagawa Kuninao (Shidan-me), from the series Treasury of 47 Loyal Retainers in Perspective (Uki-e-Chūshingura). Wikimedia Commons. From Allen Hockley, Public Spectacles, Personal Pleasures: Four Centuries of Japanese Prints from a Cincinnati Collection, Cincinnati Art Museum, 2006.

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Utagawa Kunisada, The Soga Brothers Fell Ten Enemies (Soga jūbangiri, between 1827 and 1848). Courtesy of Odawara City Digital Archive, private collection.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Chūshingura, Act Two (Kanadehon Chūshingura, Nidan-me, around 1806). Courtesy of Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon.

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Viewing the most dexterous uki-e from the An'ei period, it becomes clear that the dominant...