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Japanese prints : A timeless tradition

Updated: Apr 3

The Japanese prints, known as Ukiyo-e, have fascinated Asian art enthusiasts for centuries. These prints, originating from the Edo period (1600 - 1869), possess a complex history directly linked to Japan's cultural and artistic evolutions. Through this article, the gallery invites you to discover the captivating history of these highly appreciated artworks in today's art market.

Photo credits : Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Bnf).

Printmaking: a traditional technique

The process of printmaking emerged in China during the Tang Dynasty (794-118) in the 13th century and gradually spread to Korea, Vietnam, and finally to Japan. Initially used in Buddhist art for religious instruction (illustrated stories, illustrated books...), it eventually shifted to single-sheet prints and gained significant popularity during the Edo period (1600 - 1869).

This process involves four stages:

  • Drawing: Executed by the artist using a brush and ink or, from the 20th century, watercolor, displaying the motif conceived by the artist along with all color indications.

  • Woodblock carving: Wooden blocks are carved according to the drawing and color indications provided by the artist. A different block is made for each color used, averaging around 20 different blocks for a single print.

Wood drawing of a close-up portrait of a young woman. Photo credits: Bibliothèque nationale de France (Bnf)

  • Printing: Done on a sheet of "washi" paper placed on one of the engraved woodblocks. This step follows strict alignment rules (hento) and is made possible by markers that ensure precise reproduction of the motif on each block. It's during this stage that the color application is executed.

  • Edition: The dissemination of the print in one or multiple copies by the publisher.

Evolution of the print: the importance of the Edo period

The Edo period (1603-1868) was the cradle of this art form that captivated the world with its beauty, technical sophistication, and significant cultural impact. The economic prosperity and political stability of this period encouraged the growth of an affluent merchant class, creating a demand for these prints among a broader audience. The prints were affordable and accessible, contributing to their increasing popularity. Moreover, the emergence of a dynamic urban society in Edo (present-day Tokyo) provided artists with a rich pool of subjects to explore, from daily life to urban landscapes, nurturing the diversity of themes depicted in prints.

Between tradition and modernity: the Shin-Hanga and Sosaku-Hanga movements.

As previously explained, the creation of prints relies on a rigorous technical process organized between four distinct professions: draftsman, engraver, printer, and publisher. However, this division was challenged in the 20th century with the emergence of a significant artistic conflict between two major movements in the print world: Shin-Hanga and Sosaku-Hanga.

Hasui Kawase (1883-1957). "Saishoin Temple-Pagoda in the Snow, Hirosaki", from the series "Selected Views of Japan (Nihon fûkei shû higashi Nihon hen)" 1936. Nishiki-e, ink and colors on paper, oban vertical format. Sold by Millon and appraised by Gauchet for 5,100 euros. Photo credits: Yann Girault, Millon.

The Shin-Hanga movement was a response to the decline of traditional Japanese prints, known as ukiyo-e, which had reached its peak during the Edo period (1603-1868). Shin-Hanga artists aimed to revive this classic art by integrating modern Western techniques while retaining traditional Japanese themes such as landscapes, actor portraits, and beautiful women (bijin-ga). This approach often involved a division of labor between the artist, the skilled block cutter, and the printer.

Crossing a ford in the moonlight. Photo credits: Bibliothèque nationale de France (Bnf).

In contrast, the Sosaku-Hanga movement, emerging in the early 20th century, adopted a radically different philosophy. Sosaku-Hanga artists advocated for a more individual and artistically autonomous approach to artistic creation. Unlike Shin-Hanga, Sosaku-Hanga artists took on all stages of print production, from design to final execution, rejecting the traditional division of labor.

This conflict persisted for much of the 20th century, with each movement passionately defending its vision of Japanese print art. However, despite their differences, both movements played an essential role in preserving and renewing Japanese print art, significantly contributing to the history of modern Japanese art.

Major artists and influences

  • Hokusai (1760-1849)

Katsushika Hokusai remains one of the most iconic figures in Japanese print art. His most famous work, "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji," including the renowned "Great Wave off Kanagawa," immortalized iconic Japanese landscapes and left an indelible mark on world art. His innovative style, mastery of composition, and masterful depiction of natural elements influenced numerous artists through the centuries.

Self-portrait, Musée national des arts asiatiques - Guimet. Photo credits: Musée Guimet.

  • Hiroshige (1797-1858)

Utagawa Hiroshige, also known as Ando Hiroshige, is renowned for his series "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo," which captures urban life and landscapes of the Edo era with unmatched visual poetry. His landscape prints offer an intimate and emotional perspective of Japanese regions, capturing serene beauty and the harmony between man and nature.

"Kozuke Province: Mount Haruna under Snow" (Kôzuke, Harunasan setchû), from the series "Views of Famous Sites in Sixty and Some Provinces [of Japan]" ([Dai Nihon] Rokujûyoshû meisho zue). Signed Hiroshige Hitsu. 1853 Nishiki-e, ink and colors on paper, oban horizontal format. Sold by Millon and appraised by Gauchet for 850 euros. Photo credits: Yann Girault, Millon.

  • Utamaro (1753-1806)

Kitagawa Utamaro is renowned for his exquisite portraits of actresses, courtesans, and beautiful women. His elegant and detailed prints, often depicting women in daily life scenes, captivated audiences of the time with their grace and refinement. His works were praised for their mastery of subtle expressions and details.

"Keisei geisha hana awase" from the series "Geisha and Beauties Compared to Flowers" Nishiki-e, ink and colors on paper, oban vertical format, framed under glass. Sold by Millon and appraised by Gauchet for 200 euros. Photo credits: Yann Girault, Millon.

  • Sharaku (active around 1794-1795)

Toshusai Sharaku remains one of the most mysterious artists in Japanese print art. Active for a remarkably short period, about a year, his portraits of kabuki actors have a striking and expressive style, capturing characters with unique dramatic intensity. Despite his brief career, Sharaku left behind an intriguing and enigmatic artistic legacy.

The print has left a lasting legacy in the world of art. These prints not only influenced Japanese culture but also had a significant impact on Western art. In the 19th century, Europe was seized by a fascination for Japan, an artistic movement called Japonisme, where artists like Claude Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec were deeply influenced by the aesthetics of the print.

"Umégawa et Chubei" 20th-century Nishiki-e prints, ink and colors on paper. Sold by Millon and appraised by Cabinet Gauchet for 120 euros. Photo credit: Yann Girault, Millon.

Examples of results and the current market

The market for Japanese print art has experienced a significant increase in interest in recent years, with a growing demand for these iconic works. Prints by renowned artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige have sparked keen interest among collectors and art enthusiasts worldwide. Iconic works like Hokusai's "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" have achieved record auction prices, surpassing $2,000,000 at Christie's New York in 2023, demonstrating the fervor for these historic prints.

The Great Wave of Kanagawa, Hokusai. Christie's New York 2023 sale. Photo credits : Christie's

High-quality prints in good condition of these rare works sell at very high prices in the market. Likewise, landscape prints and famous series such as Hiroshige's "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo" continue to be highly sought after, drawing attention from collectors due to their timeless beauty and historical significance.

Expertise from Jean Gauchet and Gauchet Art Asiatique

"When it comes to assessing, estimating, and selling Japanese prints, quality expertise is essential," emphasizes our expert Jean Gauchet. Gauchet Art Asiatique, led by expert Jean Gauchet, stands out for its precision and unparalleled expertise in this field. Their experience as experts and auctioneers ensures that each piece is accurately evaluated, thereby ensuring the best auction sale price.

To find out more about Japanese prints, read the article by Barnebys (the world's largest search engine for art, design and collectibles) entitled "Ukiyo-e: The Art of Japan".

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