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Two Floating Worlds: Japanese Prints and Paintings

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A painting on a hanging scroll of a Japanese beauty dressed in an elaborate and colorful kimono.

A Beauty, early 18th century.


Kaigetsudô Doshin. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

From the 17th through the 19th century, ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” were created both as prints and paintings, often by the same artists and featuring similar subjects: the courtesans and kabuki actors who were the stars of the period. 

While overlapping in artist and theme, paintings and prints nonetheless differ in important ways. Paintings are unique works that show the true hand of the artist, capturing his skill and talent. These were often created by commission for wealthy clients, and many were made on silk with costly pigments such as gold paint. Printed images, on the other hand, are the interpretation of a drawing the artist supplied to a publisher that was then carved and printed by other craftsmen. These were usually created in multiples and sold at a price that was within reach of most of the population looking for an appealing image of a well-known beauty or actor. 

The two ends of ukiyo-e often cross-pollinated again in the marketplace. For example, once an artist or subject became popular in print, those with the means could commission a painting by that artist of a similar or modified composition. Conversely, images by an artist already celebrated among an exclusive group of painting patrons could be made commercial by being replicated in print. 

A complement to the major exhibition Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection, on view in Regenstein Hall, this exhibition presents ukiyo-e prints and paintings from the museum’s collection, highlighting the similarities and differences between the two media.

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