Art Markets: Now and Zen – Japanese woodblock prints

The art of Japan was unknown until Commodore Perry and his U.S. Navy flotilla sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853. Art was probably the least of Perry’s considerations behind his show of force and diplomacy, which convinced Japan’s rulers to open their country to the outside world after centuries of self-imposed isolation. Perry’s mission exposed Japan to the West, triggering the country’s industrialization and modernization, and its rapid rise as a world power. Perry’s voyage also had an unanticipated impact on Western artists, who found inspiration in the simplified lines and white space of Japanese woodblock prints. James McNeill Whistler introduced the prints to London’s Pre-Raphaelites as early as 1859. Before long, Japan’s influence could be seen in the work of artists across Europe and America.

The art of Japan, which found distinct expression in the medium of woodblock prints called ukiyo-e, was profoundly indebted to the contemplative spirit of Zen Buddhism. It was a meditative art that sought to strip away human complexity in exchange for glimpsing the essence of scenes. It was also a democratic art, reproduced in large numbers and reaching into every corner of the country. When Japan became a trading partner with the West, its prints were prolifically produced for export. Soon enough, Japanese artists went abroad, rendering sites familiar to Western audiences in the style of the home islands.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, an image from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, created by Katsushika Hokusai between 1826 and 1833.

Perhaps the bulk of pre-World War II prints, and the legion of largely anonymous artisans who made them, accounts for their startling availability. Many antique Japanese woodblock prints can be found on eBay for under $100. However, as in any genre of visual art, the recognized masters command higher prices.

Creating a woodblock print is a three-step process involving an artist, an engraver and a printer. The artist creates the sketch on thin paper. The engraver traces the sketch onto a block of wood and carves the impression. The completed carved block is given to the printer who applies ink on the block and prints the image on a paper support. Multiple colors are achieved by repeating the ink application one color at a time within the same printed image. All steps require skilled artisans with knowledge of the process and deft handling of paper ink and wood.

Japanese woodblock art has a long history, originating with the propagation of Buddhist teachings and evolving into commercial production in the early 17th century. The production continued into the early 20th century. The tradition is divided between two distinct eras in Japanese history, during which the finest works of the art form were produced. The Edo period began in the 1620s, characterized by feudal military dictators known as shoguns. Their regime ended in 1867 with the restoration of imperial rule under Emperor Meiji. The Meiji period closed with the death of the emperor in 1912.

Throughout the Edo period, artists focused on Japan’s insular life with depictions of the four seasons of the islands, sometimes featuring animal and plant life; iconic representations of sacred temples and landmarks; studies of women; portraits of children, shogun warriors and Sumo wrestlers; and the depiction of Japan’s other popular art form, the Kabuki theater. The Kabuki prints (called Yakusha-e) were woodblock images of elaborately costumed actors on stage and in performance. They were received in much the same way as movie and theater posters are collected today.

The Meiji period saw a great change in art, as the focus became the western market. Japanese artists began to travel abroad for the first time in centuries and depicted Western scenes in Japanese style.

Many masters emerged from the Edo period and among the most prolific were Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Gototei Kunisada (1786-1865), Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) and the last great master of the period, Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi (1797-1861).

Hokusai’s reputation was established as a landscape painter. His masterwork, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, included a 10-print supplement featuring additional views of Mount Fuji from the interior, or 46 prints in all. Sotheby’s in London sold The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, a signed print from the set, for $60,000 including buyer’s premium, in November 2001.

Kunisada (who later signed his work as Toyokuni III) shared no equal in commercial success; there was a time when the word ukiyo-e meant only one thing: Kunisada, or so it was noted during his lifetime. His series, Selection of Actors, with Scenes of the Fifty-three Stations on the Tokaido Highway, was praised in a popular song of the time. Auction prices for his prints generally range from $1,000 to $4,500.

Hiroshige (also known as Hiroshige I) produced more than 5,400 prints; many with up to several hundred impressions per image. One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo was one of his last, great journeys in art. His son-in-law, who became known as Hiroshige II (1826-69), was fascinated by the landscape of Japan and traveled the length of the nation for inspiration. At auction, Hiroshige prices range from $500 up to the thousands, with a rare, 70-print set Views of the Province selling in May 2006 at Sotheby’s Amsterdam for $76,692 including buyers premium.

Many ukiyo-e prints were produced in sets and a landscape series could bear the same title by different artists. Both Hiroshige and Hokusai produced 53 stations on the Tokaido as well as 36 views of Mt. Fuji. Additionally, Hiroshige produced two versions of the 36 views. Titles were often descriptive if not lengthy. Kuniyoshi’s Pictures of All Sorts of Places in the Eastern Capital gets to the point in a rather meandering pace. Three Great Bridges of the Eastern Capital, signed by Kuniyoshi, sold at Christies New York in September 2006 for $3,000, including buyer’s premium.

The Meiji period nurtured at least three great masters, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-92), Yoshiiku Ochiai (1833-1904) and Kunichika Toyohara (1835-1900). The early years expressed dark emotion and gloom with depictions of bloodthirsty battles and military heroes. Japan’s war with Russia (1905) was depicted in traditional style. Afterward, the mood lifted with a return to more pacific images. Prints by some of the masters of ukiyo-e continue to be struck nowadays and are often available at modest prices. Many fine works by older woodblock artists can be found for under $1,000. Ukiyo-e remains a field of art accessible to collectors with modest budgets.

Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit, or call 800-352-8892.