Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) is a genre of paintings established in the Edo Period, or Medieval Japan. Although ukiyo-e translates as “pictures of the floating world”, it also incorporates the meaning of “modern style”, “present day”, and “lust”. This type of drawing flourished from the 17th century, all the way through the 19th century.
Ukiyo-e often depicted characteristic sceneries, as well as people’s daily life. Artists drew diverse painting subjects such as classical literature, Japanese poetry, but also portraits, landscapes and religious depictions. Because of that, as for many other art-forms, it is an important piece of history that helps us better understand how people lived at different time periods.
There were three major types of ukiyo-e: nikuhitsu-ga (ukiyo-e painted entirely by hand on silk or paper), woodcut printing, and woodblock print illustration books. Ukiyo-e started as nikuhitsu-ga, meaning they were exclusively hand-draw. This changed when woodcut prints were mass-produced and easily available, and by the 18th century, it was the norm for artists to start their career with prints first, and create hand-drawn ukiyo-e only once they became famous.
By the late 19th century, the ukiyo-e began to decline due to the rise of photography, woodblock printing being used mainly for newspapers, and the deaths of two renown great masters of the art: Hokusai and Hiroshige.