Asian Art

Autumn Moon in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Magda Michalska 23 September 2023 min Read

Does anyone here live by the water? If you do, you will probably confirm that evenings have something transcendental when the moon reflects on the water and the air is so fresh… These things never change as we can clearly see in these 19th century Japanese woodblock prints.

1. Moon by Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama, ca. 1834, source: ukiyo-e.org, autumn moon in japanese woodblock prints
Moon in Japanese woodblock prints: Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Moon at Ishiyama, ca. 1834, private collection. Ukiyo-e.

Utagawa Hiroshige ( 歌川 広重) is considered the last great master of the woodblock printing and painting tradition of ukiyo-e, which developed in the 17th century Edo, modern Tokyo. He is mostly known for his depictions of nature, which were, however, an unusual subject for ukiyo-e, which portrayed the world of courtesans, actors, and urban entertainment.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn flowers in front of full moon, 1853, source: Wikiart, autumn moon in japanese woodblock prints
Moon in Japanese woodblock prints: Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn flowers in front of full moon, 1853. Wikiart.

Moon in Japanese woodblock prints: Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Moon at Tama River - Edo Kinko Hakkei, ca.1829 - 33.
Moon in Japanese woodblock prints: Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Moon at Tama River – Edo Kinko Hakkei, ca.1829-1833. Ukiyo-e.

2. Moon by Eisen

Keisai Eisen, Autumn Moon over Atago Hill (Atagosan no aki no tsuki) rom the series Eight Views of Edo, 1846, source: Wikiart, autumn moon in japanese woodblock prints
Moon in Japanese woodblock prints: Keisai Eisen, Autumn Moon over Atago Hill (Atagosan no aki no tsuki), from the series Eight Views of Edo, 1846. Wikiart.

Keisai Eisen (渓斎 英泉) was seven years older than Hiroshige. His works focused primarily on portraits of beautiful women –  bijin-ga. Perhaps that’s why he’s regarded as a master of the decadent Bunsei era, which lasted approximately from 1818 to 1830?

3. Moon by Zeshin

Moon in Japanese woodblock prints: Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872. Wikiart.
Moon in Japanese woodblock prints: Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Shibata Zeshin’s (柴田 是真) art was not liked at all in Japan. He was considered an epigone of others who did nothing of his own, and a panderer to Europeans, who painted only what pleased the West. He worked slightly later than Hiroshige, active between the late Edo period and the early Meiji era, which began in 1868.

4. Moon by Chikanobu

Toyohara Chikanobu, Monday: autumn moon over Sumida River, 1895, Wikiart, autumn moon in the japanese woodblock prints
Moon in Japanese woodblock prints: Toyohara Chikanobu, Monday: autumn moon over Sumida River, 1895. Wikiart.

Toyohara Chikanobu (豊原周延), known to his contemporaries as Yōshū Chikanobu (楊洲周延) also worked during the Meiji period. He first served in the military in the famous Shōgitai corps. Following their surrender in the Battle of Ueno in 1868, he decided to make a living as an artist.

5. Moon by Toyokuni II

Utagawa Toyokuni II, Autumn moon at Tamagawa, two boats fishing at night, c.1830, source: Wikiart, autumn moon in japanese woodblock prints
Moon in Japanese woodblock prints: Utagawa Toyokuni II, Autumn moon at Tamagawa, two boats fishing at night, c.1830. Wikiart.

Utagawa Toyokuni II was adopted by another artist, Toyokuni I, he became his pupil and later his son-in-law (ah, these family links). He worked during the Edo period. Also before his teacher’s death in 1826 he used another name, Toyoshige (豊重), then he switched to simple Toyokuni (豊国) but another pupil of Toyokuni I, Kunisada, didn’t accept it and on top of that he declared himself the leader of Toyokuni school.

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