“… living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.”
Edo 17th century. Shogun ruled with an iron fist. The society was heavily stratified with a land-owning samurai class at the top and the merchants at the bottom. But while the samurai began to decline and grow poorer the merchants grew wealthy. What merchants lacked in respectability they more than made up for in money. They spent that money freely on kabuki; courtesans and other pursuits found in the pleasure quarters. Ukiyo-e embodied a live for today attitude, live while the money is flowing, while the samurai prepared for death. Stark contrast between two cultures.
The merchant class popularized woodblock images, “heroes of Ukiye-o” because they had kobans and ryo to burn on mass consumption, the acquisition and the patronage of artists whose images graced their homes. It’s not surprising that the more conservative government wanted to stamp out the images. They feared that woodblocks would infect the mass culture of Japan with a licentious greed. Waves of artist persecutions came and went, but in the end people loved woodblocks. Merchants wives and daughters copied courtesan style of the day. They imitated flashy kimono and piled their hair high with pincushions of expensive kanzashi hair sticks, which led the government to enact more, futile sumptuary laws.
Everyone wanted to dress like a courtesan and that was the problem.
In the 19th century some of the greatest artists became inspired by the woodblocks of the Ukiyo-e. Van Gogh was rumored to have seen an Eisen woodblock of a famous courtesan when he was painting abroad. The style of the floating world swept opera, musicals, furniture and china, styles that became known as Japonaise. What was largely a hedonistic art form born in a city ruled by a dictator went to Paris.
Some examples of Japonaise art.
Van Gogh’s La Courtisane.
Another charming example of the style, La Japonaise by Wordsworth.