Many Japanese woodblock artists have existed over the centuries whose work is still very much revered to this very day. Not much is known about their lives, but the little we do know is full of intrigue, eccentricity, and oftentimes great personal tragedy. Here we will uncover some of the best printmaking artists and showcase their most famous works – many of which even had a profound effect and influence on the European Impressionism Movement.
- Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770)
- Suzuki Harunobu woodblock prints
- Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)
- Kitagawa Utamaro woodblock prints
- Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
- Katsushika Hokusai woodblock prints
- Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
- Utagawa Kunisada woodblock prints
- Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858)
- Ando Hiroshige woodblock prints
- Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)
- Utagawa Kuniyoshi woodblock prints
- Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)
- Tsukioka Yoshitoshi woodblock prints
- Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950)
- Hiroshi Yoshida woodblock prints
- Kawase Hasui (1883-1957)
- Kawase Hasui woodblock prints
Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770)
Suzuki Harunobu was born into a samurai family in 1724 or 1725, and it’s believed that he most likely grew up in Kyoto. He received training from another artist named Nishikawa Sukenobu and shortly thereafter relocated to Edo (Tokyo) to pursue a professional art career.
For most of his career, he created prints depicting beautiful women (bijin-ga), various classical themes, and even a fair amount of erotica (shunga), none of which made him truly famous. It wouldn’t be until the last five years of his life when he not only achieved fame but also revolutionized the woodblock printing world by being the first artist to create full-color prints.
These color prints, known as nishiki-e, rendered the standard monochrome type prints obsolete and made woodblock prints hugely popular in Tokyo.
Sadly, Suzuki Harunobu didn’t live long enough to enjoy this newfound fame because he passed away a few years later in 1770 while only in his mid-40’s.
Suzuki Harunobu Woodblock Prints
First row: (1) Flowers from the series Snow, Moon, Flowers (1770) Source. Second row: (2) Demon Chasing Ceremony (1766) Source. (3) The Waterfall (1771) Source. (4) First Day of Autumn (Date Unknown) Source.
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)
Many people regard Kitagawa Utamaro to be the greatest Japanese woodblock artist to have ever existed, and according to some, he even outshone the legendary Hokusai. No one knows if he was ever married or where he was born, but some birthplace suggestions include Kawagoe, Osaka, and Kyoto, while others believe he was from a small village in the countryside.
He moved to Edo (Tokyo) at a young age to study and work under the guidance of woodblock artist Toriyama Sekien. Most of the work involved book illustrations, which was not something he wanted to do, and his real work as an artist began when he started working under the guidance of a publisher named Tsutaya Juzaburo. He quickly excelled in woodblock prints of beautiful women (bijin-ga) because no one else could portray the beauty of Japanese women in kimonos quite as elegantly as he could.
He even created a large number of erotica prints (shunga), which were frowned upon by Japanese authorities. However, that is not what caused his downfall. Instead, Kitagawa Utamaro was arrested for creating art depicting the shogun Hideyoshi, who was overthrown by the then ruling Tokugawa regime. As a result, he served a short prison sentence but never recovered from the experience and died two years after his release in 1806.
Kitagawa Utamaro Woodblock Prints
First row: (1) Three Seated Ladies with lanterns, teapot, candle holder, and stringed instrument (18th Century) Source. Second row: (2) Polychrome woodblock print (Late 18th Century) Source. (3) Beauty at her toilet (1790) Source. (4) Untitled woodblock print (1802) Source.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
The eccentric Katsushika Hokusai, who was born on the 31st October 1760 in Tokyo, is one of the most famous Japanese woodblock artists of all time. He first started painting and sketching at age six and received professional training when he became a student of Katsukawa Shunso at age 18. Hokusai only started his best work at age 70, with the most famous being “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” His work even influenced the impressionism movement in Europe with Claude Monet and Van Gogh being huge fans of him.
It’s believed that he was married twice and had several sons and daughters. Two of his daughters, Katsushika Oei and Miss Tatsu, worked with him. Katsushika Oei worked with him from the 1810s to the 1840s, and they made many erotica (shunga) prints during this time. Strangely, a few years after Hokusai’s death one summer morning, she left her home and was never seen or heard from again.
Another daughter, Miss Tatsu, produced many impressive paintings and prints which were indistinguishable from her father’s work. Sadly, she’s believed to have died at a young age during the early 1820s.
Hokusai’s famous quote:
“When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs, but all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish, and insects. When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. And at 110, everything I create — a dot, a line — will jump to life as never before”.
Hokusai relocated to Uraga in 1835, where he lived out his remaining years in poverty while continuing his work. He died on 18 April 1849, at age 90, so no one knows if his prediction would have come true. While on his deathbed, he said, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years… just another five more years, then I could become a real painter”.
Katsushika Hokusai Woodblock Prints
First row: (1) The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830) Source. Second row: (2) A woman ghost appeared from a well (1831) Source. (3) Cuckoo and Azaleas (1828) Source. (4) The Strong Oi Pouring Sake (1820) Source.
Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
Utagawa Kunisada was by far the most financially successful woodblock printmaking artist on this list, and his reputation, according to many, surpassed that of Hokusai. He was born in Edo (Tokyo) in 1786, and his father, who was a famous poet, passed away one year after his birth. He showed an interest in art from a young age and became an apprentice at a popular print master’s woodblock workshop.
His initial work mainly consisted of book illustrations, but soon, he started excelling at prints of beautiful women (bijin-ga), sumo wrestlers (sumo-e), and samurai warriors (musha-e). Kunisada also created a large amount of erotica (shunga prints), which he signed under a different name, ‘Matahei.’
During his 5-decade long career, he produced 20 000 to 25 000 woodblock prints. Most of which sold extremely well and are still sought after today at hefty prices among serious collectors. Kunisada died in Tokyo in 1865, while having made only one trip out of the city his whole life.
Utagawa Kunisada Woodblock Prints
First row: (1) Fashionable Man Entertained in a House of Pleasure (Between 1786 and 1864) Source. Second row: (2) Execution of Goemon Ishikawa (Mid 19th Century) Source. (3) White (1847-1852) Source. (4) Green (1847-1852) Source.
Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858)
Ando Hiroshige, also known as Utagawa Hiroshige, is often referred to as Hokusai’s successor and is considered by many art scholars as being the last great master of the traditional ukiyo-e style.
He was born in 1797 in Edo (Tokyo), and at age 14, he was accepted as a trainee under Toyohiro. Under Toyohiro’s guidance, he produced and excelled at woodblock prints of kabuki actors (kabuki-e), samurai warriors (musha-e), and beautiful women (bijin-ga). By the time he was 31, his master had passed away, and Ando was expected to take his role to continue the tradition. He declined and chose to go his own way so that he could focus on what interested him the most, which was studying nature and creating landscape prints (fukei-ga).
In 1831 Ando started producing fukei-ga in his own unique style and created a set of 10 woodblock prints entitled “Famous Views of Edo,” which made him famous overnight. Unfortunately, the quality of his work began declining as he got older, and most of the things he made after 1850 didn’t come close to his earlier efforts. He retired in 1856 while still successful and popular but died two years later in 1858.
Ando Hiroshige Woodblock Prints
First row: (1) A Village in the Snow Source. Second row: (2) The Sea at Satta, Suruga Province, from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” (1858) Source. (3) Moonlight View of Tsukuda with Lady on a Balcony (Between 1850 and 1856) Source. (4) Sugura street (Date Unknown) Source.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)
Utagawa Kuniyoshi was renowned for creating ukiyo-e prints of landscapes (fukei-ga), warriors (musha-e), kabuki actors (kabuki-e), beautiful women (bijin-ga), and many involving cats.
He was born on 1 January 1798 in Edo (Tokyo). His father was a silk-dyer, and as a small child, Kuniyoshi helped him as a pattern designer.
He showed an interest in art from a young age, and by age 12, his art caught the attention of print master, Utagawa Toyokuni. One year later, Kuniyoshi started training at Toyokuni’s studio and quickly became his top student. In 1814 he left the studio to become an independent artist but didn’t find his unique style or fame until the 1820s when he began producing single sheets and triptychs of warriors (musha-e) and landscapes (fukei-ga).
Like many Japanese people, Kuniyoshi loved cats, and his studio was overrun with them. He eventually started incorporating felines into his art and began producing art of kabuki actors (kabuki-e) with cat faces. Today, these Kuniyoshi woodblock prints featuring cats are highly sought-after pieces among serious ukiyo-e collectors.
The quality of his work began deteriorating as he got older, but he continued to run his studio from where he trained new up-and-coming artists. Sadly, Utagawa Kuniyoshi died from a stroke in 1861.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi Woodblock Prints
First row: (1) Autumn (Date Unknown) Source. Second row: (2) Honjo Shigenaga parriying an exploding shell (Date Unknown) Source. (3) Women 20 (Date Unknown) Source. (4) Nakamura (Date Unknown) Source.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi was born in Edo (Tokyo) on 30 April 1839. He showed a strong interest in art from age three and by 11, became an apprentice of one of the greatest print masters, Kuniyoshi.
In the 1860s, Yoshitoshi created art depicting disturbing scenes of gore and violence – something he regularly witnessed as feudal Japan was in rapid decline, and the new Meiji era began to emerge. However, it was these themes that made Yoshitoshi famous.
Interest in Yoshitoshi declined in 1871 because the public became tired of violent scenes, which were a strong focal point in his work. Consequently, he became depressed and lived a life of poverty with his mistress. At one point, she had to sell her clothes for money, and he even burned wood from his house to keep warm at night. Things improved when he started creating woodblock illustrations for local newspapers, but his financial situation was still not good. As a result, his mistress started working in a brothel for extra funds. One year later, he found a new mistress, and soon she too sold her clothes to help make ends meet and ended up working in a brothel.
By 1884 he married a different woman who seemed to have a stabilizing effect on his behavior. Shortly after that, he began producing ukiyo-e, which reached critical acclaim, and he was once again a popular artist. This fame would not last as Japan became modernized, and people were more interested in new forms of Western art such as lithography and photography.
Yoshitoshi’s mental problems returned, and so did his deteriorating physical condition. He was briefly admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1892 but didn’t return home upon his release. Instead, he rented out various rooms over three weeks until he passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi Woodblock Prints
First row: (1) A Woman Saving the Nation: A Chronicle of Great Peace (1886) Source. Second row: (2) Beauty with Irises (19th Century) Source. (3) Fire in the Lamp Stand (1878) Source. (4) I want to become beautiful (1878) Source.
Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950)
Hiroshi Yoshida was born on 19 September 1876 in Kurume, Fukuoka. It was his adoptive father, an art teacher, who stirred up his interest in art. At age 19, Yoshida studied art in Kyoto, where he learned the methods of Western art. Afterward, he continued his studies in Tokyo under the guidance of Koyama Shotaro.
He held his first exhibition in the United States in 1899, and his art applied the new shin-hanga method, which was western art techniques combined with traditional ukiyo-e. In 1925 Yoshida opened a studio and quickly became one of the world’s most well-known modern Japanese woodblock artists. His work often featured non-Japanese themes as he regularly traveled internationally and loved creating woodblock prints of the places he visited.
It seems as if Word War II changed him because of his inability to create any art since the end of the war. He did attempt to create one last series of prints entitled “One Hundred Views of the World,” but he, unfortunately, passed away before its completion.
Hiroshi Yoshida Woodblock Prints
Kawase Hasui (1883-1957)
Kawase Hasui was born on the 18th of May 1883 in Tokyo. He was barely known in Japan but adored in the West and is today regarded as one of the most influential Japanese woodblock artists of the shin-hanga (new prints) movement.
He had an interest in art from a young age, but his parents expected him to take over the family wholesaling business. For unknown reasons, this never materialized, but some suggest the family business went bankrupt while others say that Hasui’s brother-in-law took the responsibility upon himself. Nevertheless, this freed him up to pursue his much-desired art career.
Kawase Hasui applied to learn from Kiyokata Kaburagi, who was a highly respected artist and member of the Imperial Fine Art Academy but was denied and instead spent the following two years learning the ways of Western art from Okada Saburosuke. Afterward, he applied to Kiyokata Kaburagi once again and got accepted.
Throughout his 40-year long career, he traveled extensively across Japan and created shin-hanga woodblock prints of landscapes, towns, and cities he visited. Finally, in 1956, one year before his death, he got the recognition he deserved in his home country when the Japanese government declared him a Living National Treasure.