Three Ukiyo-e Prints: Hiroshige and Kubo Shunman

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With its range of markets – particularly the Saturday and Monday markets on Noordermarkt – and its galleries and shops along Spiegelgracht, there are plenty of opportunities in Amsterdam for buying Japanese prints. Here are three I bought recently:

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The first two prints are by Hiroshige, from his series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Yedo Hiakkei), which he completed in the final two years of his life, from 1856 to 1858. The series in fact consists of 119 ukiyo-e prints, plus a title page; print 119 is by Hiroshige II – Hiroshige’s student and adopted son – and it is believed that three other works in the series may have been finished by him. All of the prints were created in the oban tateye format: the ‘oban’ indicating their size of 39cm x 26cm; the ‘tateye’ their portrait orientation.

The series was first published between 1856 and 1859 by Uoya Eikichi, and proved so popular that a deluxe edition soon followed. Vincent van Gogh, who developed a passionate relationship with Japanese woodcuts after moving to Antwerp in November 1885, was especially inspired by One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. His Japonaiserie: Flowering Plum Tree and The Bridge in the Rain (both 1887) were copies after numbers 30 (Plum Park in Kameido) and 58 (Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake).

The first of the prints above is number 78 in Hiroshige’s series, entitled Teppōzu and Tsukiji Monzeki Temple (Shiba Shinmei Zōjōji’). Two sails lead the view across the lively water towards the Hongan-ji Temple, set against a pattern of birds and a pink-purple sky.

The second is number 82 in the series, Moon Viewing (also called Moon Promontory; ‘Tsuki no Misaki’), showing a late evening view over the Edo (now Tokyo) Bay. The vibrant green of the room’s flooring contrasts with the calm water upon which the room looks out; boats are moored, and a full moon rises, crossed by a flock of birds. The remnants of a meal lie on the floor of the room, while a lady changes behind the screen in the corner.

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A version of this third print appears in various forms across the internet, most frequently attributed to 1870 and with its creator unspecified. The Library of Congress, for instance, lists a version under the title Owl and magnolia (‘Kobushi ni mimizuku’); noting that its magnolia blossoms are embossed.

The print above is more richly colored, with a green hue, and with its magnolia blossoms a lovely progression of lavender and pink. The V&A Museum reveals it as a work by Kubo Shunman (1757-1820), made around 1800, and an example of surimono – a genre of woodcut privately commissioned for special occasions, and often featuring poems. The given title is Owl on a Flowering Magnolia Branch. Shunman’s ukiyo-e prints are characterised by such a restrained, subtle use of colour.