Free! Download 19th Century Japanese Master Woodprints



Ukiyo-e, or ukiyo-ye (浮世絵, Japanese: [], "pictures of the floating world"), is a genre of art that flourished in Japan from the 17th through 19th centuries. Its artists produced woodblock prints and paintings of such subjects as female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica. Source: wiki

Exquisite and free. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has digitized their collection of 19th Century Japanese woodblock prints.  The artists in the collection were masters in the ukiyo-e tradition during the 19th century in Japan.  Make space on your hard drive!  The images are in high resolution, there are more than 500, and they available for free to download.  Big thanks to Open Culture for the tip.


The prints in this collection specifically represent Japanese art contemporary to period in which Van Gogh worked.  The tradition originated several hundred years earlier as monochromatic text, heavily used for diseminating Buddhist scriptures.  Once color techiques were developed, the genre expanded in subject and flourished as prized decorative art for prosperous individuals - not just for the wealthy and powerful.  I imagine the numbers of pieces produced were countless.  By the late 19th century, prints were reproduced from a woodblock until the woodblock wore down.



19th Century Art, Ukiyo-e, and Japonism

We are very familiar with the style and visually reference it as "Japanese Art".   The ukiyo-e genre was introduced to the west in the 19th century. Classical and contemporary Japanese art was well-known among artists in salons of Paris and influenced western art movements of the period, especially Art Nouveau.  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec reflected the ukiyo-e genre heavily in his work, from subjects to composition.  By the turn of the 20th century it was wildly popular in the West, visual aethetics of anything possible incorpoated aspects of ukiyo-e.  Influence of Japanese aesthetics in the 19th century on the West was known as Japonism.

gogh...artists such as Manet, Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, Degas, Renoir, James McNeill Whistler, Monet, van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gaugin, Aubrey Beardsley and Klimt were all influenced by Japanese art [of the Edo period]."

"Ukiyo-e with it's lack of perspective, clean lines and flat areas of colour influenced many Western artists. Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Modernism all drew inspiration from traditional Japanese art. The work of artists such as Hokusai and Utamaro were to have a profound and lasting affect upon Western art."   - Katsushika Hokusai, Ukiyo-e & Edo Period Japan  - hokusaionline

  • Artist: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
  • Title: La Courtisane
  • Date: 1887
  • Media: Oil paint on canvas
  • Notes: van Gogh produced 'copies' of works by Hiroshige and Kesai Eisen.
  • Artist: Mary Cassat (1844-1926)
  • Title: Maternal Caress
  • Date: 1891
  • Media: Drypoint and soft-ground etching
  • Notes: Mary Cassat was influenced by Japanese prints she saw in Paris in 1890. Her work clearly shows her interpretation of the line and form so indicative of ukiyo-e prints by artists such as Utamaro
  • Artist: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
  • Title: Divan Japonais
  • Date: 1893
  • Media: Lithographed poster
  • Notes: Toulouse-Lautrec's appreciation for Japanese prints can clearly be seen in his famous images of the Parisian nightlife. Flat areas of colour and asymmetrical compositions featured strongly in his work.

Historical Context

"Edo (modern Tokyo) became the seat of government for the military dictatorship in the early 17th century. The merchant class at the bottom of the social order found themselves the greatest beneficiaries of the city's rapid economic growth. Many indulged in the entertainments of kabuki theatre, courtesans, and geisha of the pleasure districts. The term ukiyo("floating world") came to describe this hedonistic lifestyle. Printed or painted "ukiyo-e" images of this environment emerged in the late 17th century and were popular with the merchant class, who had become wealthy enough to afford to decorate their homes with them." Source: wiki

Social Context

"During the Edo Period (1615-1868), a uniquely Japanese art from developed known as ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world."  A Buddhist concept, ukiyo originally suggested the sadness (uki) of life (yo). But during the peace and prosperity of the 17th century, another ideograph, also pronounced uki but meaning "to float," emerged. Instead of connoting sadness, ukiyo came to be associated with the momentary, worldly pleasures of Japan's rising middle class. Unable to alter their social standing and regulated in nearly every aspect of their lives, from behavior and dress to the sizes of their houses, wealthy commoners found escape in licensed pleasure quarters and Kabuki theaters. There, they could watch handsome actors performing the latest plays or spend time with beautiful courtesans known for their sparkling wit, musical accomplishments, and poetry."

"Paintings of people from this world became a specialized type of genre painting in the 17th century. For the first time in Japan's history, commoners had enough money to commission works that reflected their own interests and activities. They patronized artists who created a new style based on sinuous lines and bright colors that featured subjects wearing the most up-to-date fashions."

The Prints

"The realization of any print, however, depended on a collaboration: of a publisher, who funded the project; an artist, who designed the image; and block carvers and printers, who produced it. This division of labor, in fact, led to a high degree of technical perfection. While demand for images of beautiful women and dashing Kabuki actors remained strong throughout the 18th century, artists in the 19th century expanded the ukiyo-e repertoire to include landscapes, birds-and-flowers, legendary heroes, [historic scenes] and even ghoulish themes."

Source: The Art of Asia |MIA

Source of 19th century western art images and captions: hokusaionline