The most iconic prints in the world are assuredly Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e). These elaborate and color-filled masterpieces are renowned throughout the world,  inspiring artists in both the East and West. The artists who made (and make) them are among the most famous artists to have ever lived: Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760 – 1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797 – 1858) enjoy the same fame and renown as Michelangelo and Picasso. As a result of their popularity, ukiyo-e prints are found in many museums around the world. They are also sought-after at auction.

Kikukawa Eizen Print of a Courtly Lady

What are Ukiyo-e Prints?

Woodblock prints, in Japanese, are called ukiyo-e. This term means “images of the floating world”. They had their origins in the “pleasure quarters” of Japanese cities like Kyoto and Tokyo (called Edo at this time), where there were theaters and brothels. Many woodblock prints would show famous actors, actresses, or courtesans, often wearing elaborate clothing and costumes. Kabuki theater in particular, with the actors in its characteristic bright white makeup, was a popular theme. Therefore, artists like Utagawa Kunisada (1786 – 1865), Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 – 1825), and Kikukawa Eizan (1787 – 1867) made portraits and scenes featuring kabuki actors and courtesans their specialty.

One example of Kunisada’s work, a woodblock of a courtesan under a cherry blossom tree, shows Kunisada’s attention to detail and desire to impress the viewer with the fabulous costume of the woman. Another similar print by Eizan, this one of a courtesan surrounded by attendants, likewise shows a woman dressed in resplendent clothing with detailed patterns and multiple colors. These magnificent examples were both sold by Nest Egg Auctions in 2011, and sold exceedingly well.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Ochiai" from "Sixty-nine Stations along Kiso Highway" Print

The Prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige

While scenes of courtesans and kabuki actors were popular early on, other themes were popular as well. Scenes of traditional stories, with monsters, gods (kami), and heroes, were also made and are continually popular. No woodblock prints, however, are more sought after than the landscapes of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige.

These two contemporaries made their names in making a series of views of famous monuments. Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (ca. 1830 – 32) and Hiroshige’s One Hundred Views of Edo (1856) include pieces among the most famous prints of all time. Hokusai’s often-copied Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830 – 32) remains the most iconic work of Japanese art ever created, and original examples sell for tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars. Nest Egg Auctions has had the opportunity to sell works by both artists, including Hiroshige’s Ochiai from the Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Highway series (mid 19th century). This print shows a scene along a main highway in Japan, with figures walking through a town with mountains looming behind. Hiroshige’s brilliant use of gradient colors gives the effect of mist and the setting or rising sun. Thus, he demonstrates his absolute mastery in the woodblock medium.

Selling Ukiyo-e Prints at Nest Egg Auctions

The stories they tell, and the scenes they capture, speak volumes to us here at Nest Egg Auctions. As such, we are always happy to see them come in the door and to identify them. We are even happier to share them with the public by selling them at auction. We have extensive experience with ukiyo-e prints, and would love to see yours. So, if you have a Japanese woodblock print, please share it with us!