Ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world”, is a genre of Japanese woodcuts and paintings created between the 17th and the 20th centuries, featuring motifs of landscapes, tales from history, the theatre, and pleasure quarters. It is the main artistic genre of woodblock printing in Japan.
Usually the word ukiyo is literally translated as “floating world” in English, referring to a conception of an evanescent world, impermanent, fleeting beauty and a realm of entertainments (kabuki, courtesans, geisha) divorced from the responsibilities of the mundane, everyday world.
The development of this art form occurred during the Edo period (1603-1867) which was a time of relative peace whereby the middle class and common man could afford to spend their spare time and resources on transient pleasures such as Kabuki theater and geisha entertainment in establishments such as the Ichiriki Ochaya. Ukiyoe artists derived their subjects from this “floating world”: beautiful women (often courtesans), sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, and landscapes.
The art form reached Europe during the Meiji period where it also became popular. Ukiyoe was an inspiration for many European artists and it is widely known that it had a great influence on impressionists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.