Ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world", is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints (or woodcuts) and paintings produced between the 17th and the 20th centuries, featuring motifs of landscapes, tales from history, the theatre and pleasure quarters. It is the main artistic genre of woodblock printing in Japan.
Ukiyo-e can be categorized into two periods: the Edo period, which comprises ukiyo-e from its origins in the 1620s until about 1867, when the Meiji period began, lasting until 1912. The Edo period was largely a period of calm that provided an ideal environment for the development of the art in a commercial form; while the Meiji period is characterized by new influences as Japan opened up to the West.
The roots of ukiyo-e can be traced to the urbanization that took place in the late 16th century that led to the development of a class of merchants and artisans who began writing stories or novels, and painting pictures, compiled in ehon (picture books, books with stories and picture illustrations), such as the 1608 edition of Tales of Ise by Hon'ami Kouetsu. Ukiyo-e were often used for illustrations in these books, but came into their own as single-sheet prints (e.g., postcards or kakemono-e) or were posters for the kabuki theater. Inspirations were initially Chinese tales and artworks. Many stories were based on urban life and culture; guidebooks were also popular; and all in all had a commercial nature and were widely available. Hishikawa Moronobu, who already used polychrome painting, became very influential after the 1670s.
In the mid-18th century, techniques allowed for production of full-color prints, called nishiki-e, and the ukiyo-e that are reproduced today on postcards and calendars date from this period on. Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Sharaku were the prominent artists of this period. After studying European artwork, receding perspective entered the pictures and other ideas were picked up. Katsushika Hokusai's pictures depicted mostly landscapes and nature. His Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjuurokkei) were published starting around 1831. Ando Hiroshige and Kunisada also published many pictures drawn on motifs from nature.
In 1842, pictures of courtesans, geisha and actors (e.g., onnagata) were banned as part of the Tenpou reforms. Pictures with these motifs experienced some revival when they were permitted again.
During the Kaei era, (1848–1854), many foreign merchant ships came to Japan. The ukiyo-e of that time reflect the cultural changes.