Japanese prints of the XVIII –XIX century from the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts






pictures of the beauties

Ukiyo-e are popular pictures of the everyday life of the urban class in the Edo period. Originally the word ukiyo was used to designate one of the Buddhist categories and could be translated as "world of misery" or "world of sorrow". At the end of the 17th century ukiyo came to mean the modern world, the world of earthly joys and pleasure. The creation of Japanese ukiyo-e prints reached its heyday at the end of the 18th century. The main figures in ukiyo-e prints came to be representatives of the third estate: courtesans, actors, sumō wrestlers, characters from Japanese plays and legendary heroes.

The bijin-ga genre was one of the most important in the ukiyo-e school. The sources of bijin-ga (literally depictions of beautiful people) can be traced back to Japanese genre painting of the mid-17th century. As large urban centres developed, such as Edo (mod. Tokyo) and Osaka, scenes with traditional festivals and entertainments for townspeople began to appear on the scrolls and screens created by urban artists (machi-eshi). Fashionable young women from the capital and dandies in flamboyant garments became the central figures in these pictures. From the beginning of the 18th century, along with drawn images there also appear prints of vertical format (hashira-e) in imitation of vertical painted scrolls kakemono-e.

These would depict full-length figures of courtesans in splendid colourful costumes. Often precisely the fashionable kimonos, complete with hand-painted decoration and embroidery, the intricate hair-styles and eye-catching accessories would be more important in these prints than the depictions of the beauties themselves. As a rule the subjects of such depictions would be courtesans from the so-called "pleasure districts", which were to be found in every large town. An example of such can be provided by the Yoshiwara district in the northern part of Edo, on the banks of the Sumida-gawa river opposite the centre of the city.

Three times a year – in the spring during cherry-blossom time, in the summer when peonies were in bloom and in the autumn when chrysanthemums were in flower – a parade of the most attractive and popular beauties would be held in Yoshiwara on the central street, Nakanocho. After the parade of all the "blossoms" – the image used to refer to the courtesans – oiran portraits were created of the high-class courtesans together with their pupils and servants (kamuro and shinzō) processing along the street in all their splendour.

The emergence of the bijin-ga genre (depictions of beauties) and also the appearance of single-sheet prints (ichimai-e) were linked with the name of Hishikawa Moronobu.

In the first half of the 18th century the Kaigetsudō artistic dynasty became one of the main schools of ukiyo-e. The artists of this school painted full-length portraits of courtesans in bright and colourful costumes against neutral backgrounds. These depictions served as advertisements for the famous beauties, popular residents of the pleasure districts. Interest in the latter was so great that there soon appeared depictions of the beauties in interiors, portrayed at different times of day. Ideals of female beauty changed over time: the tall beauties created by artists of the Kaigetsudō school gave way to the miniature young girls of Suzuki Harunobu and Isoda Koryûsai and then, at the turn of the 18th century, once again more mature beauties became fashionable, as found in the prints of Kitagawa Utamaro and Torii Kiyonaga. In addition to the grand full-length portraits and more intimate small-scale ones, bust-length ōkubi-e or 'large-head' portraits became fashionable. This development marks the artists' growing interest in conveying the emotional states of their subjects.

One of the most famous of the ukiyo-e artists, who to a large extent determined the features of classical Japanese woodblock prints in their heyday, is Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). Many of his beautiful albums and series of single-sheet prints appeared as the result of his long-term collaboration with the well-known publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburō. Utamaro was famous first and foremost for his bust-length portraits of courtesans and also for his polyptychs with genre scenes, illustrated albums and series with portraits of pairs of lovers. By this time he was portraying not just courtesans or servants from tea-houses, but also ordinary women in the towns going about their everyday life.

The artists of this period turn their attention to the relationships between individual figures – mother and child, pairs of legendary lovers.

In the prints of artists from the legendary Kikugawa dynasty (Eizan, Eisen) working in the early-19th century, it is possible to see beautiful women in lavish costumes. The draped folds of the kimono conceal the figure completely, the decoration is presented vivid and flat, while lines are broken and fractured.