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Through the Eras of Japanese Ukiyo-e

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

By: Heather Herbstritt

Unanimous with Japanese art and culture are the country’s masterful ukiyo-e or woodblock prints. Dating as far back as the 8th century, when the medium was

used to circulate Buddhist iconography, the popularity of woodblock prints grew exponentially during the later Edo period (1603-1868). Under the peaceful rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, urban populations not only developed but flourished, creating a wholly new market for artisan goods. Meeting this demand was the skillful hand of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Publishing series and prints commemorating the breathtaking beauty of Japanese landmarks, such as Mount Fuji, Hokusai is one of the great

masters of Japanese ukiyo-e. His contemporary, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), was an equally vital woodblock artist whose work will be offered in Oakridge’s upcoming Summer Discovery Sale on June 28th.

Despite the era’s fascination with the medium, the age of ukiyo-e experienced a sudden halt with the collapse of the Edo and rise of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Rapidly changing on technological and political fronts, Meiji era Japan experienced both a growth in industrialization and increased foreign involvement in the Nation’s affairs. As a result, the peaceful and colorful floating worlds of the Edo ukiyo-e fell out of favor in Japan, with many of the woodblock masterpieces being exported to satisfy a expanding Western market for Japanese art.

Come the end of the Meiji era in 1912, the character of the country had altered significantly. Over the sixty year period, the once farming and feudal nation had modernized from the imposition of the West, resulting in greater mechanization and mass production. In direct opposition to this rapid industrialization arose the Mingei movement, meaning “folk art” or aptly “art of the people”. Its aim was preserving and reviving traditional Japanese artisan skills and crafts. The movement adhered to a philosophy of finding artistry in everyday objects and believing in the hand made over the factory made.

While influential across several mediums, notably ceramics and textiles, the movement also contributed to the rejuvenation of ukiyo-e. Artistic interest in the traditional medium grew once again, producing a plethora of new graphics and styles. Representing this distinct 20th century revival in Oakridge’s upcoming auction are the serene landscapes of Hiroshi Yoshida’s (1876-1950) Plum Gateway and Kiyoshi Saito’s (1907-1997) Winter in Aizu.

However, the prints resulting from this marriage of traditional modes and modern artists were not limited to ukiyo-e. Oakridge’s upcoming sale exemplifies the diversity of Mingei prints with the inclusion of artist Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996). Famous for his stencil

dyed biblical prints, Watanabe derived his printmaking technique of kappazuri from Okinawan textile dyeing taught to him by Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984). Watanabe’s synthesis of numerous historical Japanese techniques with Western themes in distinctly Japanese settings evokes core tenets of Mingei.

Of the array of Watanabe's works to be offered by Oakridge, The Last Supper is truly a treasure. Editioned 2/70, the work is not only valued for its low numeration but its masterful use of pigment, Japanese iconography, and adherence to Mingei principles.

Whether you are enamored with the colors of the Edo masters, the serenity of the ukiyo-e revivals, or the craft style of the Mingei movement, do not miss this opportunity to witness centuries of Japanese printmaking in this phenomenal auction. Richly complex both historically and artistically perhaps you will join their history as a collector.


Works Cited

Brandon, Reiko Mochinaga., Julia M. White, and Yoko. Woodson. Hokusai and Hiroshige : Great Japanese Prints from the James A Michener Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in association with the Honolulu Academy of Arts and University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1998.

Meech Julia. n.d. “Early Collections of Japanese Prints and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Metropolitan Museum Journal Vol. 17 (1982).

Niglio, Olimpia. “100 Years of Mingei Movement in Japan.” Esempi di Architettura, January, 2022./

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