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November 2020

Floating Beauty: Women in the Art of Ukiyo-e

Opening on Tuesday, September 1, in the Bruce Museum’s recently renovated art gallery, Floating Beauty: Women in the Art of Ukiyo-e examines historical perspectives on women and their depiction in art in Edo Period Japan (1615 – 1858), will be on view until November 1.


Featuring more than 40 woodblock prints on loan from the permanent collection of the Reading Public Museum in Pennsylvania, this exhibition highlights female characters in literature, kabuki theatre, and poetry; the courtesans and geisha of the Yoshiwara district; and wives and mothers from different social classes performing the duties of their station, in order to gain some insight into the lives of women in pre-modern Japan.


Ukiyo-e, literally translated as “pictures of the floating world,” is a Japanese art form that flourished during a period marked by drastic social, political, and economic change as the country was brought under military control of the Tokugawa shogunate. The new regime delivered peace and prosperity to the island nation and reordered the social structure, dividing citizens into four classes, between which mobility was forbidden. At the top of the system were the samurai warriors, below them were the farmers, then artisans, and finally, the merchants. The aristocratic class, made up of the ruling family and his daimyos, or regional lords, lived outside of this new system.

The shogun’s societal restrictions created tension and fostered resentment toward the ruling class. In order to prevent a revolt, the regime authorized the creation of Edo’s pleasure district, known as the Yoshiwara, in 1617.


The Yoshiwara was a small, walled section outside of the city. It was in the Yoshiwara that the courtesans lived and worked, kabuki theatre was performed, and the lower classes could show off their wealth and engage in decadent activities otherwise banned in conservative Japanese society.


This new urban culture came to be known as “the floating world,” a term which described the hedonistic lifestyle of frequenting the Yoshiwara, attending kabuki plays, and patronizing brothels.


The ukiyo-e art form emerged within this floating world. Artists depicted a range of subjects, including samurai warriors, kabuki actors, folklore, literary scenes, landscapes and travel series, and historical events. But, no genre was as popular or well-represented as the bijinga, “pictures of beautiful women.” The image of the bijin (beautiful woman) was the feminine ideal, and these beauties were passive, attentive, and demure. Looking beyond the bijinga, the Floating Beauty exhibition shows that women in Edo society took an active role in their own lives.


The dynamic urban culture of the floating world led to the celebration of new art forms. Ukiyo-e artists most commonly produced their work in the form of woodblock prints, which were inexpensive to create, cheap to purchase, and lent themselves to producing large quantities of each image. The production team for a woodblock print was comprised of four individuals: the artist, who designed the image to be printed; the engraver, who would carve the image onto the block of wood; the printer, who inked and printed the image; and the publisher, who marketed the images and commissioned reprints when a print or series was successful.


Among the woodblock prints featured in the exhibition are works by ukiyo-e masters Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kunisada, Kikugawa Eizan, and Utagawa Hiroshige.


 Admission to the Museum in Greenwich, Ct., is currently by advance reservation for timed ticketed entry; visit brucemuseum.org.