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







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 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.

These were illustrations for the novel "Genji-monogatari" written by a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court, Murasaki Shikibu, at the turn of the 10th century. Since it was first created and up until the present day, this novel about Prince Genji has always been an inexhaustible source of subjects for Japanese fine art. The most famous illustrations for the novel – a series of painted scrolls "Genji monogatari-emaki" – date from as long ago as the 12th century. The first prints on the subject of "Genji-monogatari" appeared at the beginning of the 18th century: these were illustrated albums (e-hon) and single-sheet prints (ichimai-e) executed using the technique for black-and-white prints (urushi-e). Many of the ukiyo-e artists turned to the subject of the novel including Kitagawa Utamaro, Kikugawa Eizan and Utagawa Hiroshige.

It was not, however, until 1829, when the novel by Ryûtei Tanehiko "False Murasaki, Genji from the country" - a parody of "Genji- Monogotari" – was published in 38 volumes, that this subject truly came into its own. Murasaki Shikibu's characters were lent a modern guise in Tanehiko's novel and the action was transposed from the 11th to the 19th century. The main character – Prince Genji – became an impoverished samurai by the name of Mitsuuji. The structure of the original work was retained, consisting of 54 chapters, each bearing the name of one of the Prince's mistresses lovers. In the prints the characters were depicted in costumes from the end of the Edo period.

The prints illustrating Tanehiko's novel proved tremendously popular. Toyokuni III was the first artist to illustrate the novel immediately after it was published: his prints were published over 30 years as single-sheet prints or stitch-bound albums. Subsequently many of his pupils also turned to the same subject. There were so many of these works that the special term Genji-e (or "pictures portraying Genji") appeared.