Ukiyo-e, the genre of Japanese woodblock prints and paintings, flourished from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Known for their vivid colors and dynamic compositions, these artworks capture the “floating world” – a world of fleeting beauty and momentary pleasures. In this article, we explore 12 of the most important Ukiyo-e artworks, diving into the unique characteristics and historical importance of each piece.
1. “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1831)
No list of Ukiyo-e art is complete without Hokusai’s iconic “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Part of the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series, this print is renowned for its dramatic depiction of a wave about to crash over fishing boats. It exemplifies the power of nature and has become a symbol of Japanese art worldwide.
Original woodblock prints of The Great Wave often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A rare well-preserved early edition listed under its full name of “Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa),” sold at a Christie’s auction in March 2023 for a record $2.76 million.
2. “Red Fuji” by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1831)
Another masterpiece by Hokusai, “Red Fuji” from the same series as “The Great Wave,” is celebrated for its use of color and composition. The print shows Mount Fuji bathed in the red glow of the early morning sun, embodying a sense of calm and majesty. It’s a stark contrast to the turbulent emotions evoked by “The Great Wave.”
Also known as Gaifu kaisei (Fine wind, clear weather), this is probably the second most valuable ukiyo-e artwork from the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series. Fine specimens of Red Fuji sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, including one that sold for $507,000.
3. “Plum Estate, Kameido” by Ando Hiroshige (1857)
From Hiroshige’s renowned series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” “Plum Estate, Kameido” stands out for its unique perspective and use of color. The artwork, featuring a plum tree in full bloom, is a masterclass in composition, leading the viewer’s eye through the scene.
4. “Night Rain at the Paulownia Pavilion” by Utagawa Hiroshige (c. 1830s)
This print, part of Hiroshige’s “Eight Views of Ōmi” series, captures a rainy night scene with exceptional skill. The artwork is lauded for its atmospheric use of color and the way it conveys the rain’s ambiance, showcasing Hiroshige’s prowess in depicting weather and natural elements.
Note that Utagawa Hiroshige was born Andō Tokutarō and is sometimes also referred to as Andō Hiroshige.
5. “Otani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei” by Toshusai Sharaku (1794)
Toshusai Sharaku, known for his portrayals of Kabuki actors, created this striking print of actor Otani Oniji III. The intense expression and dynamic posture of the subject make this artwork a standout piece, reflecting the dramatic flair of Kabuki theater.
6. “Beauty Looking Back” by Hishikawa Moronobu (c. 1670s)
As one of the early masters of Ukiyo-e, Moronobu’s “Beauty Looking Back” is significant for its elegant simplicity and influence on the genre. The work depicts a woman in a moment of pause, turning back to look over her shoulder, embodying the grace and beauty central to Ukiyo-e.
Technically, Beauty Looking Back is a painted hand scroll rather than a ukiyo-e print. However, it has an important place in the history of ukiyo-e.
7. “The Actor Ichikawa Ebizo II as Takemura Sadanoshin” by Toshusai Sharaku (1794)
Sharaku’s portrait of Ichikawa Ebizo II is another testament to his ability to capture the essence of Kabuki. The actor’s intense gaze and the intricate detail in his costume are hallmarks of Sharaku’s style, making this print a vital piece of Ukiyo-e history.
8. “Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake” by Ando Hiroshige (1857)
This print, also from Hiroshige‘s “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” is celebrated for its depiction of a sudden downpour. The composition, capturing pedestrians hurrying to avoid the rain, is a masterful representation of daily life in Edo (now Tokyo), blended with a sense of immediacy and dynamism.
There are several editions of this print, with one fetching approximately $735,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2019. This art print was even long sought by Freddie Mercury, who finally acquired one from Japan, and it recently went on sale at auction.
9. “The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment” by Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1790s)
Utamaro’s expertise in portraying female beauty is evident in this print. The courtesan’s intricate kimono and elegant posture, combined with Utamaro’s distinctive use of line and color, make this artwork a quintessential example of Ukiyo-e’s celebration of beauty and fashion.
The Matsuba-ya (“Pine Needle House”) was one of the most famous brothels in the Yoshiwara, Japan.
10. “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Katsushika Hokusai (1814)
This erotic print, also known as “Tako to ama,” is part of Hokusai’s “Kinoe no Komatsu” series. It’s significant for its bold subject matter and artistic execution, showcasing a different facet of Hokusai’s versatility and the broader range of Ukiyo-e.
Japanese erotic ukiyo-e art of this type is known as Shunga (春画).
A three volume Kinoe no Komatsu (Pining for love) from 1814 with the above artwork sold at auction for $138,600 in March 2022.
11. “Three Beauties of the Present Day” by Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1793)
Utamaro’s print is a celebration of contemporary female beauty and fashion. Featuring three renowned beauties of Edo, it exemplifies the Ukiyo-e fascination with elegance and style.
12. “Kanbara, Snow at Night” by Ando Hiroshige (1833-1834)
From Hiroshige’s “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido,” this print stands out for its depiction of a snowy night. The tranquil yet lively scene captures the essence of winter travel in Edo-era Japan.
These 12 most famous Ukiyo-e artworks represent the pinnacle of Japanese woodblock printing and painting, each contributing uniquely to the rich tapestry of this art form. They capture the essence of the “floating world” — from the beauty of nature and everyday life to the vibrancy of theater and the elegance of fashion. Their enduring legacy continues to influence and inspire artists and art enthusiasts around the world.
- Collecting Ukiyo-e Art: A Guide for Beginners
- 11 Most Influential Ukiyo-e Artists: Masters of Japanese Woodblock Prints
- The Most Expensive Ukiyo-e Art Sold at Auction: A Record-Breaking Journey of “The Great Wave”
- Evolution of Japanese Woodblock Art: Ukiyo-e, Shin-Hanga, and Sosaku-Hanga
- From Japan to the World: The Global Influence of Ukiyo-e Art
At The Art of Zen we carry a wide selection of our own hand-crafted original Japanese art prints in the ukiyo-e and Japandi style. Some of our best selling work is Mount Fuji wall art and Japandi wall art.
Add some zen to your space with brilliant original art from the Art of Zen shop.