History of Japanese woodblock prints tied to decline of artistic freedom


Warman's Antiques & Collectibles 2013

This exclusive excerpt on Japanese woodblock prints is from the new “Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2013” (Krause Publications, 2012) by Zac Bissonnette. See page 21 for a special, limited-time offer on the purchase of this valuable, full-color resource.


In a letter to his brother Theo in 1885, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “My studio is not too bad, especially as I have pinned up a number of Japanese prints on the walls, which amuse me very much. You know those little women’s figures in gardens on the beach, horsemen, flowers, knotty thorn branches.”

Iwata Sentaro Japanese woodblock printIwata Sentaro (1901-1974), modern woodblock print, half portrait of a Japanese beauty, signed “Sentaro-ga” (some toning, staining), 15 1/4 inches high by 10 1/2 inches wide, $110.

Today, an ever-increasing number of collectors are willing to pay handsomely to amuse themselves with Japanese prints on their walls. But it remains a field where, beginning with a very small budget, you can acquire reasonably rare, beautiful works on your own.

Authentic Japanese woodblock prints from the 18th and 19th centuries can be found through reputable dealers starting at as little as $100.

In 1872, Jules Claretie coined the term ‘Japonisme,’ which referred to the influence of Japanese art – especially woodblock printing – on the modern art in Europe. The lack of perspective and the use of bold, un-lifelike outlining, and the depiction of subjects off-center influenced the development of impressionism and later cubism. The list of European modernist painters whose style owes a significant debt to Japanese woodblock printing is extensive: van Gogh, Degas, Cassatt, Whistler, Monet, Gauguin, Klimt, and Renoir, just to name a few.

Indeed, it is impossible to browse through late-18th and early 19th century Japanese prints without being stunned at how modern they seem. We see their reflection in European modernism right on through pop art and illustrators like Patrick Nagel – and, of course, in the Anime cartoons that have soared in popularity over the past decade.

Hiroshi Yoshida Japanese woodblock printsHiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950), titled “Naiyagara bakufu” (Niagara Falls), dated Taisho 14 (1925), from the United States Series, impressed signature LR (traces of tape residue to top reverse corners, otherwise very good condition), 10 3/4 inches high by 15 3/4 inches wide, $250.

But even without the context of their influence on Western art, ukiyo-e is interesting.

Ando Hiroshige Japanese woodblock printsAndo Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797-1858), “Canyon Scene,” color woodblock on paper, minor foxing. Matted and framed, not examined out of frame, 20 inches by 6 1/2 inches, $143.

The story of the rise and fall of Japanese woodblock printing is a sad one; it is also the story of the decline of artistic freedom and the rise of totalitarian government. In his 1954 book “The Floating World,” a history of Japanese woodblock printing, the novelist James Michener lays out why the story of this art form needs to be told.

“[T]his book tries to explain what happens to an art when a powerful and practical civil government begins to regulate all aspects of that art,” he writes. “We shall watch such a government, benign and extraordinarily wise, as it begins to build its strait jacket for art: what colors may be used, what unpatriotic subject matter must excluded, what immoral material must be stopped. We shall see this government exhort its artists to produce only those subjects which glorify the history of the nation. And we shall clearly see that those laws hastened the death of the art.”

By the 1830s, the Japanese government had stipulated that blue was the only color that could be used.

“The government was concerned with extravagance, and they were concerned with controlling the middle class,” notes Bill Stein of Chicago’s Floating World Gallery. “The government told the publishers you can only print in blue, which seems crazy to you and me but it was sending a message: You need to be austere, extravagance is bad, and prints with lots of color and action are bad for you.”

But it’s not all darkness. Michener writes that “the Japanese print is fun. It comprises one of the most totally delightful art forms ever devised. Its colors are varied, its subject matter witty, its allurement infinite.”

That infinite allurement that attracted the great European modernists has also attracted collectors from all over the world – and that’s given the Japanese woodblock print market a stability that Asian art at large hasn’t had.

Read more on Japanese woodblock prints: Art Markets: Now and Zen – Japanese woodblock prints

Paul Jacoulet japanese woodblock printPaul Jacoulet (1896-1960), titled “Le Mandarin Aux Lunettes, Mandchoukuo,” pencil signed LR, with duck seal, right margin with printer and carver cartouches of Honda and Maeda, reverse numbered 75/150 (glue residue to top margin, some toning, especially to the margins), 19 inches high by 14 inches wide, $750.

“If you’re just looking at the domestic market coming from Japan, it’s really stagnated over the past 20 years,” notes Stein. “The market picture is much more complicated than that, particularly in the West. Japanese art appeals to people everywhere. So while their domestic market is important, a very substantial part of the demand comes from the United States and Asia.”

While many artists still haven’t climbed back to the prices they reached during Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s, demand has risen steadily since the bust, and did not abate during the recent economic crisis in the United States.

A few tips for getting started: If you’re going to spend a significant amount of money on a Japanese Woodblock print – and by significant I mean you are not buying the work purely for decoration, and it is important to you that the piece have some enduring value – buy through either a major auction house or a member of the International Fine Print Dealers Association.

Stein notes that the world of Japanese prints is confusing because many prints had different “states,” as the woodblocks were used over several decades, oftentimes with repairs made to the blocks in between printings. Works that look the same to the untrained eye can vary by a factor of 10 in terms of value.

“It gets easy after you look at the first 10,000,” says Stein.


Zac Bissonnette is the author of “Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2013 Price Guide, 46th Edition” and “Debt-Free U: How I Paid For an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents.” He has appeared on “The Today Show” and CNN, as well as a contributing editor to Antique Trader on WGBH and NPR. Everything he knows about money was learned yard-saling with his mother.

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