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Prints of Actors

What are Nishiki-e?

Elaborate woodblock prints created with many different colors are called nishiki-e (“brocade pictures”). The techniques for these were established during the middle of the 18th century. The vivid colors were hugely popular, and today they are highly valued as works of art.

Ukiyo-e and Nishiki-e

In contrast to the religious images and story illustrations created for nobles, samurai, and priests, pictures known as ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) showed the customs of the era. From around the 16th century, artists painted directly onto folding screens, rolled paper, and hanging scrolls, but in the mid-17th century woodblock printing made it possible for people to mass produce ukiyo-e, and to obtain them cheaply. As a result, commoners also started enjoying this kind of art. At first, the prints were colored only with ink (black), but when the multicolored nishiki-e appeared in the middle of the 18th century they became even more popular, and were a familiar sight to a wide range of people right up until the start of the 20th century.

The front of Uoei, which published and sold recreational products, including nishiki-e and illustrated books
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni III
National Diet Library collection (寄別8-4-1-9)

The front of Uoei, which published and sold recreational products, including nishiki-e and illustrated books
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni III
National Diet Library collection (寄別8-4-1-9)

Collaborations between professionals

Nishiki-e are not reproductions of original pictures. These works of art were created through collaborative production, with many different experts dividing the labor and many prints being made from the same original design. First, a publisher (hanmoto), the equivalent of a publishing company or a bookstore, would come up with a subject and a plan. Then, an artist (eshi) who was a painter or an illustrator, would make a rough sketch based on the publisher’s idea. A wood-carver (horishi) would incise the details of that sketch, creating a wooden printing block that served as a base. The artist would select the color scheme based on a single-color print made with this wooden printing block, and the wood-carver then created wooden printing blocks that could be used for color. A printer (surishi) would consider the shades and areas of color while deciding the order of the printing, apply ink and mixed paints to the wooden printing blocks, and make prints on paper.

A comical depiction of the process of creating publications through division of labor
Artist: Jippensha Ikku
National Diet Library collection (207-541)

A comical depiction of the process of creating publications through division of labor
Artist: Jippensha Ikku
National Diet Library collection (207-541)

People and scenery

Nishiki-e became widespread as images that were accessible and fun, and had many different subjects. Among these, images of people were popular designs; in addition to the yakusha-e that depicted Kabuki actors and the bijin-ga that showed beautiful women, artists also created many images of sumo wrestlers, heroes and samurai from history and legend, and others—these were treated as publicity pictures and posters of stars. The meisho-e that depicted beauty spots around the country were familiar sights, similar to postcards and pamphlets, and were feasts for the eyes of the commoners, who were very rarely able to travel.

One of a series of works depicting actors in successful roles associated with 36 types of flowers
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni III
National Theatre collection (NA061080)

The Sumida River, a famous location within Edo (Tokyo)
Artist: Suzuki Harunobu
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP2780)

Okita of the Naniwaya in Asakusa was judged to be a beauty
Artist: Kitagawa Utamaro
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP3018)

Sumo wrestlers entering the ring. Sumo was entertainment for ordinary people in the Edo period (1603-1868)
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni II
National Diet Library collection (本別7-27)

One of a series of works depicting actors in successful roles associated with 36 types of flowers
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni III
National Theatre collection (NA061080)

The Sumida River, a famous location within Edo (Tokyo)
Artist: Suzuki Harunobu
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP2780)

Okita of the Naniwaya in Asakusa was judged to be a beauty
Artist: Kitagawa Utamaro
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP3018)

Sumo wrestlers entering the ring. Sumo was entertainment for ordinary people in the Edo period (1603-1868)
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni II
National Diet Library collection (本別7-27)

Appreciated as works of art

Nishiki-e may have been a familiar sight across a wide area, but they also have high value as crafts and artworks. Created from experience with excellent sense and superior techniques, these prints have a rich appeal as pictures—not just in the plans of the publishers who preempted trends and the artistic ability of the artists who could surprise their viewers, but also in the skills of the wood-carvers who carved the details, right down to the locks of hair, and the dexterity of the printers who could realize the same kind of gradation on hundreds and thousands of prints. Notably, the introduction of these at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1867 led to them having a great influence on Western pictures.

A print from a series depicting Mt. Fuji from different locations
Artist: Katsushika Hokusai
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP2565)

This nishiki-e was used in the background of Van Gogh's Portrait of Père Tanguy
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni III
National Theatre collection (NA0074588000)

A print from a series depicting Mt. Fuji from different locations
Artist: Katsushika Hokusai
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP2565)

This nishiki-e was used in the background of Van Gogh's Portrait of Père Tanguy
Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni III
National Theatre collection (NA0074588000)

Meisho Edo Hyakkei

Tradition has it that foxes gather near Oji Inari Shrine from all around the Kanto area, and pay their respects
Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige I
National Diet Library collection (寄別1-8-2-1イ)

A nishiki-e depicting the plum garden behind Kameido Tenjinja Shrine, which was copied by the artist Vincent Van Gogh
Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige I
National Diet Library collection (寄別1-8-2-1)

Tradition has it that foxes gather near Oji Inari Shrine from all around the Kanto area, and pay their respects
Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige I
National Diet Library collection (寄別1-8-2-1イ)

A nishiki-e depicting the plum garden behind Kameido Tenjinja Shrine, which was copied by the artist Vincent Van Gogh
Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige I
National Diet Library collection (寄別1-8-2-1)

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