Art Through Time: A Global View
The Urban Experience Art: Night View of Saruwaka-machi (Saruwaka-machi Yoru no Kei) from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei)
A popular art form that developed during the period of Tokugawa rule in Japan (1603–1868), ukiyo-e prints covered a range of subject matter much of which was associated with urban life in Edo (present-day Tokyo).
In addition to merchants and artisans, the citizenry of Edo included daimyo, regional military leaders required to maintain part-time residence there, and their households. By the eighteenth century, Edo, the de facto capital of the Tokugawa Shogunate, had a population of over one million people and ranked as the world’s largest city.
Accessible and affordable, but also culturally sophisticated, ukiyo-e prints were produced for a wide cross section of the population as well as for visitors and those unable to travel who wanted to enjoy Edo vicariously through images. The prints included everything from landscapes and festivals to portraits of well-known actors and celebrated beauties. City scenes often focused on Edo’s Yoshiwara quarter, a licensed pleasure district.
The work seen here comes from a series of prints by Edo native Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) entitled Meisho Edo hyakkei, or “one hundred views of the famous places of Edo.” Although Hiroshige’s scenes are set in famous locales, their primary focus is the daily life of ordinary people in the bustling metropolis. This particular print is set in nineteenth-century Edo’s well-known theater district, the Saruwaka-machi. In the scene depicted, a group of people stroll through a shop-filled street illuminated by moonlight. The geometric planes of the buildings, the simple lines of the figures, and the boxed inscriptions calling attention to the picture plane on either side of the image give the work an abstract quality characteristic of Japanese woodblock prints. However, the deep, perspectival recession of the street and the cast shadows on the ground demonstrate the influence of European models on Hiroshige’s work as well. This melding of aesthetic languages results in an image that is surprisingly calm given the crowded hub of nightlife it depicts. Night View of Saruwaka-machi embodies the magical otherworldliness suggested by the term ukiyo-e, translated literally as “pictures of the floating world.”
Julie Nelson Davis, Associate Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania
“Edo is today known as Tokyo. And by the late eighteenth century, 1.3 million people lived in Edo, possibly making it one of the largest cities in the world. It also becomes a center of ukiyo-e printing. Ukiyo-e, or ‘images from the floating world,’ were produced for the people who are living in the city. These pictures showed things from everyday life—the entertainments and pleasures that people pursued and enjoyed. They’re produced in large quantities at a very low price. All printed by hand, so each color is applied through a separate woodblock.
The word itself, ukiyo-e, derives from a Buddhist concept that has to do with the evanescence of life, of how quickly life passes by. In the seventeenth century it came to be used to describe this world of temporary pleasures and distractions.
Edo was one of the cleanest cities of the period, much cleaner than London or Paris, and I think you see that in these pictures, but I don’t think that their interest is really in documenting the city as sort of recording what it was like, but in kind of celebrating what it was like.”
Blood, Katherine L., James Douglas Farquhar, Sandy Kita, and Lawrence E. Marceau. The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with the Library of Congress, 2001.
Calza, Gian Carlo, et al. Ukiyo-e. London: Phaidon, 2007.
“The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance.” Library of Congress Web site. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e.
Forrer, Matthi. Hiroshige: Prints and Drawings. With essays by Suzuki Jūzō and Henry D. Smith II. Munich; New York: Prestel, 1997.
Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Introductory essays by Henry D. Smith II and Amy G. Poster. New York: George Braziller, in association with the Brooklyn Museum, 2000.
“Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.” In Exhibitions. Brooklyn Museum Web site. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/online/edo.
Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art, rev. and expanded ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.