In the 17th century, Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (now Tokyo) were Japan’s thriving cities, complete with bustling entertainment districts where ukiyo, or the “floating world,” was born. People of all ranks shared in the enjoyment of the floating world’s attractions—brothels, kabuki theater, and seasonal festivities. Artists of the period captured this popular phenomena in ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” Over the last 25 years, Roger Weston has assembled an outstanding collection of ukiyo-e paintings—masterpieces by the most famed artists of the day. This exhibition, the first public showing of his comprehensive ukiyo-e painting collection in the United States, showcases the sheer beauty of floating world painting and offers an exclusive view of the urban amusements of early modern Japan.
In contrast to ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which were created in multiples and consequently well circulated, ukiyo-e paintings were one-of-a-kind works commissioned from the same artists celebrated for their prints, including Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro. Lavish and unique objects, the paintings were conceived in various forms—folding screens, hanging scrolls, handscrolls, and albums—and emphasize the makers’ talent and technical skill. Until recently, these compelling works were not often collected in large numbers outside of Japan, making the quality and range of the Weston Collection all the more extraordinary.
The Weston Collection focuses on images of bijin, or beauties. Whether courtesans, geisha, actors, or women in scenes of everyday life, bijinga (pictures of beauties) embody the floating world’s ideals of style and sophistication. The paintings’ subjects served as important cultural figures: fashion icons, celebrities, and even stand-ins for historical and legendary characters.
Through these bijinga, the exhibition explores changing ideals of beauty and highlights some of the more famous personalities of ukiyo-e, such as the Hell Courtesan, a fabled 15th-century beauty and devout Buddhist who wore robes decorated with images of the underworld. Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889) produced several works depicting the Hell Courtesan, but the Weston Collection painting (above) is among the most prized versions of the subject.
“Ukiyo-e painting has an allure that is so intriguing and special I simply fell in love with the genre,” remarked Roger Weston. “It has been a true pleasure to assemble a collection that encompasses the full chronology of ukiyo-e and all the major schools. I hope to give visitors the same joy viewing it as I have had building it.”
Accompanied by a 350-page catalogue that includes major new essays by leading scholars, Painting the Floating World features over 150 works from the 17th through the 19th century. Each painting offers an exquisite glimpse of the past; as a whole the exceptional collection reveals ukiyo-e’s rich connection to trends in fashion, beauty, and cultural life over centuries.
More works from the Weston Collection
Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection is generously sponsored by Roger L. and Pamela Weston.
Additional support has been provided by
Annual support for Art Institute exhibitions is provided by the Exhibitions Trust: an anonymous donor; Neil Bluhm and the Bluhm Family Charitable Foundation; Jay Franke and David Herro; Kenneth Griffin; Caryn and King Harris, The Harris Family Foundation; Robert M. and Diane v.S. Levy; Ann and Samuel M. Mencoff; Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel; Anne and Chris Reyes; Cari and Michael J. Sacks; and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.