Ukiyo-e is a genre of woodblock prints and paintings that flourished in Japan from the 17th through 19th centuries. Aimed at the prosperous merchant class in the urbanizing Edo period (1603–1867), depictions of beautiful women; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica were amongst the popular themes.
Edo (modern Tokyo) was chosen as the seat of government by the military dictatorship in the early 17th century. The merchant class at the bottom of the social order found themselves the greatest beneficiaries of the city's rapid economic growth. Many indulged in the entertainments of kabuki theatre, courtesans, and geisha of the pleasure districts. The term ukiyo ("floating world") came to describe this hedonistic lifestyle. Printed or painted "ukiyo-e" images of this environment emerged in the late 17th century, and were popular with the merchant class who had become wealthy enough that they could afford to decorate their homes with such works.
In the 1670s Moronobu was the earliest success with his paintings and monochromatic prints of beautiful women. Colour prints came gradually—at first, added by hand only for special commissions. By the 1740s, artists such as Masanobu used multiple woodblocks to print areas of colour. From the 1760s the success of Harunobu's full-colour "brocade prints" led to colour as a standard, each print made with ten or more blocks. The peak period in terms of quantity and quality was marked by portraits of beauties and actors by masters such as Kiyonaga, Utamaro, and Sharaku in the late 18th century. This peak was followed in the 19th century by a pair of masters, best remembered for their landscapes: the bold formalist Hokusai, whose Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the best-known works of Japanese art; and the serene, atmospheric Hiroshige, best remembered for the series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō. Following the deaths of these two masters, and against the technological and social modernization that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868, ukiyo-e production went into steep decline.
Some ukiyo-e artists specialized in making paintings, but most works were prints. Artists rarely carved their own woodblocks for printing; rather, production was divided between the artist, who designed the prints; the carver, who cut the woodblocks; the printer, who inked and pressed the woodblocks onto hand-made paper; and the publisher, who financed, promoted, and distributed the works. As printing was done by hand, printers were able to achieve effects impractical with machines, such as the blending or gradation of colours on the printing block.
Ukiyo-e was central to forming the West's perception of Japanese art in the late 19th century–especially the landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige. From the 1870s Japonism became a prominent trend and had a strong influence on the early Impressionists such as Degas, Manet, and Monet; Post-Impressionists such as van Gogh; and Toulouse-Lautrec and other Art Nouveau artists. The 20th century saw a revival in Japanese printmaking: the shin-hanga ("new prints") genre capitalized on Western interest in prints of traditional Japanese scenes, and the sōsaku-hanga ("creative prints") movement promoted individualist works designed, carved, and printed by a single pair of hands. Prints since the late 20th century have continued in an individualist vein and have been made with techniques imported from the West as well, such as screen printing, etching, mezzotint, and mixed media.