Mitsui Memorial Museum
For the common people, the Edo period was a time of increased well-being in their everyday lives, and urban culture blossomed in a diverse array of forms. Ukiyo-e, an art form beloved by the masses, grew with the prosperity of the metropolis of Edo. In 1765, during the mid-Edo period, ukiyo-e was revolutionized by full-color printing. Through the efforts of a group centered around Suzuki Harunobu, a new technique of multiple color woodblock printing was invented, called the nishiki-e, the “brocade print.” The common people delighted in such color printed matter. It was a rare wonder, scarce to be found anywhere in the world at the time.
Beloved by Westerners as well from the Meiji period onward, ukiyo-e are now housed at art museums all over the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, on the East Coast of the United States, is one of the foremost art museums in the country with a history of more than 130 years. At present, its holdings include more than 4000 works of ukiyo-e, but until now only a few individual pieces have been seen in Japan and a comprehensive overview of the collection has never been presented here. Last year, with the museum’s cooperation, we had the opportunity to conduct a complete survey of all the works made by major ukiyo-e artists in the collection. As a result, we are pleased to present the finest works of ukiyo-e from this collection and to commemorate this memorial year marking exactly 250 years since the birth of the nishiki-e multicolor print.
This exhibition traces the grand course of the history of ukiyo-e through the lens of masterpiece after masterpiece by the quintessential artists of the genre. Beginning with rare actor prints by Torii School artists from the emerging years of ukiyo-e, the exhibition continues through the dignified actor prints and beautiful women of Ippitsusai Bunchō and Katsukawa Shunshō and the dawn of nishiki-e. These early works are followed by the beauties of Torii Kiyonaga and Kitagawa Utamaro, marking the golden age of ukiyo-e, and the landscape prints of famous places by Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. This exhibition also includes exceptional prints produced in the Kansai region (Western Japan) known as Kamigata ukiyo-e. In particular, the thirty works by Harunobu depicting dreamy loving couples include several prints of exceptional condition that are not to be missed. Additional highlights include the lineup of ten vivid and richly individualistic head portraits of kabuki actors by Tōjūsai Sharaku.
In closing, we would like to extend our profound gratitude first to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for helping to make this exhibition possible, as well as to express our sincere thanks to the many others who have also provided their support and cooperation in this project.