What influences and inspires greatness? Depending on the modality, it can be genetic, environmental, scientific, and perhaps social. When speaking of the five Japanese woodblock artists capturing significant interest from today’s collectors, many appear to share a few key commonalities. These artists are Haruyo Morita, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Ohara Koson.
In comparing them, their artistic abilities were identified at a young age, and in most cases, encouraged. They studied with master artists of varying practices early in life. Several of them changed their names during their lifetime, as a means of showing respect for their teachers or indicating their evolution as an artist. Several of the ukiyo-e artists who created prints in the 19th and early 20th centuries also designed illustrations reflective of two conflicts (the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars).
Although the influence from conflict of war is a departure from the origins of the ukiyo-e style of art, which largely depicted scenes of kabuki performances, actors, natural vistas, and women, it is representative of ukiyo-e artistry as a reflection of life and culture of Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868).
Let’s take a closer look at these five popular artists.
Geisha with Warrior Holding Samurai Sword, Serigraph, by artist Haruyo Morita. Sold for $275. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers
Haruyo Morita is the “youngster” of the group. Born in 1945 she is said to bring a “contemporary approach to traditional ukiyo-e woodblock art.” A student of Master Husuki, she received her first award for artwork at the age of 17. Her professional experience included working as a kimino painter and designer, in addition to being a creator of woodblock prints. Currently residing in Korora, Australia, her work is available in various forms including prints, jigsaw puzzles and calendars.
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, by artist Katsushika Hokusai. Recut Showa era edition published by Watanabe. Sold for $800. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is said to have began his artistic endeavors at the age of six. By the time he turned 12, his father sent him to work in a bookshop and serve as an apprentice to a wood carver. This piqued an interest that evolved into many artistic forms during his lifetime. By the age of 18, he was studying under master ukiyo-e artist Katsukawa Shunshō, and by the time he was 19, his first prints were published. His earliest work was a series of prints featuring kabuki actors. He published these works under the name Shunshō. This was the first of an estimated 30 names he used during his professional career. Having knowledge of the various names he used, and the time periods, can be very helpful when authenticating and acquiring prints by Hokusai.
Hokusai’s work is also cited as an influence for artists including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, and Claude Monet, among others. It is said that Monet was introduced to Hokusai’s work during the Exposition Universelle in 1867. Ukiyo-e prints, including examples by Hokusai were part of the display in the Japan Pavilion.
Quickly becoming a fan of Japanese prints, Monet reportedly had at least 20 prints by Hokusai in his personal collection.
Kinryuzan Temple, Asakusa (Lantern at Thunder Gate), by Utagawa Hiroshige. Recut Showa era edition published by Watanabe. Sold for $190. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers
Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige was born Andō Tokutarō in 1797 in Edo (now Tokyo), Japan. After becoming an orphan at the age of 13, he began studying with revered artist Utagawa Toyohiro, and at the age of 15, he changed his name to Utagawa Hiroshige. He is best known for his impressive series of landscape woodblock prints. Among his most notable works: “Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji,” circa 1831; “The 55 Stations of the Tokaido,” circa 1833-34; “Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kiso Road,” circa 1835; and “One Hundred Views of Edo”, circa 1856. He finished “Views of Edo” just two years prior to his death from cholera. Similar to Hokusai, Hiroshige’s artwork appealed to fellow revered artists, including Van Gogh.
Women Sewing, Triptych, by Kitagawa Utamaro. Recut Showa era edition published by Tanseisha. Sold for $280. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers
Kitagawa Utamaro (1750-circa 1806) is a bit of a mystery, as fewer facts about his life are known. He, too, began studying under a master painter, Toriyama Seiken, at a young age. It’s believed Utamaro’s first professional work, the cover of a kabuki playbook, was published when he was in his early 20s. He is recognized as one of the first ukiyo-e artists to create woodblock prints featuring sensual figures of women, rather than groups, which was the norm. Another note of achievement was his development of a technique that produced more realistic flesh tones on subjects in prints.
Cat Watching a Goldfish, 10½ by 15½ inches. Posthumous Showa era edition published by Watanabe. Sold for $440. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers
Ohara Koson was born Ohara Matao in 1877 in Kanazawa, the capital of what is now Japan’s Honshu Island. He too studied under a noted master artist, Suzuki Koson, whose name he adopted as his professional moniker. He also used the names Shoson and Hoson. Professionally he was most recognized for his printmaking work in the kacho-e style. This refers to prints featuring birds and flowers. He also spent many years teaching at the Tokyo School of Fine Art, before his death in 1945. As was the case with many similar Japanese artists, much of Koson’s woodblock prints were exported to the United States and Europe.
The invention and expanded use of photography largely replaced woodblock prints as a means of illustration. However, Japanese woodblock prints and the artist printmakers who introduced the world to some of the characters and experiences of Japanese culture through their art, continue to resonate with collectors and historians on a global level.
View this week’s Japanese Woodblock Print auction and register to bid here.